Pocono Raceway a critical stop for Chase hopefuls

Updated: June 11, 2009, 3:27 PM ET

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Denny Hamlin's two '06 wins at Pocono helped the Joe Gibbs Racing driver make the Chase as a rookie.

Start your engines

It is change-the-channel week for Sprint Cup fans in terms of where to find Sunday's race on television. And when they do … it might still be change-the-channel week.

Uh-oh, Pocono.

This weekend -- and again in eight weeks -- the series visits Long Pond, Pa., and the quirky 2.5-mile triangle that elicits strong opinions from many corners of the NASCAR world. Seemingly no one outside the track-owning Mattioli family, the league and the local fans thinks Pocono should have two 500-mile events, or two events at all. It's a popular target for ridicule.

For a number of drivers, however, it needs to be a popular target for points.

The race for the Chase is half over; last week Dover last served as the 13th of the 26 races used to set the 12-man lineup for the 10-race playoff. Tony Stewart is on top of the points (the first owner-driver to do so since Alan Kulwicki in 1992), ageless wonder Mark Martin is 12th and 10 others (including four past champions) are in-between.

Then there are maybe seven drivers who can entertain thoughts of upsetting that top 12. David Reutimann (13th, 31 points back of Martin), Kasey Kahne (14th, 66) and Juan Montoya (15th, 92) are within 100 points of Chase contention. Clint Bowyer, Brian Vickers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Martin Truex Jr. are longer shots at 118 to 231 points out, though Bowyer and the Juniors have qualified for previous Chases.

If they're going to make a run, Pocono's the place to start.

"I feel like we're capable of finishing in the top 10 there, but we need to break out and become a top-5 car," said Richard Childress Racing's Bowyer, whose best finish in six Pocono starts was a sixth in August.

Hopefully, a good finish Sunday begets another one in August, allowing for a doubling-up of sorts in points. That's the way it has worked the past five seasons, as each June winner has turned around for a seventh-or-better finish at the second race. Jimmie Johnson in 2004 and Denny Hamlin in 2006 won both Poconos, and in Hamlin's case those victories were big in his making the Chase as a rookie for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Pocono is the first race in a stretch-your-legs part of the schedule, if you will, with six of the next 10 events on ovals 2 miles or longer and two on winding road courses. Compare that with the past nine races, six of which were on tracks of 1.33 miles or less.

Maybe it's time to get dialed in for long green-flag runs, starting with Pocono's unique three-turn configuration. Each turn has different banking, with varying-length straightaways in between. The 3,740-foot frontstretch at Pocono is the longest straight line the drivers will navigate all season.

"The straightaways are so long, you need to get all of the speed down them that you can so your car can come off of Turn 3 as fast as possible," said Kasey Kahne, Richard Petty Motorsports' best hope for a Chase berth. "I've always liked the uniqueness of the three different corners and the challenge that it presents to the teams to set up your car to be fast at each of the different ends."

A setup that works for one corner may not fit for the other two, which can make for a long day (or as the Pocono detractors would say, an even longer day). Among the drivers who are inside the top 12, Greg Biffle (18.3 average finish) wouldn't call Pocono his favorite track and even the usually front-running Kyle Busch (two laps led in eight starts) hasn't found the combination there yet.

"Most of your passing is going to be done probably through Turn 1 and off of Turn 1 and getting into Turn 2, if somebody can get a good run off of Turn 2, get back up high and get in line to get on that [asphalt] patch getting into Turn 3," said Busch, sixth in points for JGR. "In Turn 1 we just can't get the cars to turn down there because there's so much load on the bump stops from going 210 mph down the front straightaway and then trying to slow it down to about a buck-40.

"Turn 2 is kind of bumpy and kind of rough. There are different areas where you've got to maneuver through the tunnel turn to get your car right. If you miss it just by a little bit, you tend to knock the wall down off the corner, so it's tight."

If the top cars in the standings miss the setup Sunday, it could open the door for bubble teams to begin a second-half Chase push. Then Pocono wouldn't look bad at all.

Front-running

Jimmie Johnson: Can you handle a four-peat? Sure, we're just into June, but there are days when the No. 48 simply drops the hammer and makes everyone look silly. Sunday at Dover was one of those, with Johnson leading 298 of 400 laps and only making things interesting with a poor pit stop near the end.

The win moved Johnson up a notch to third in points and closer to the lead than he's been at this point in the season since 2006, his first title season, when he led the standings after 13 races. In 2007 he was second at this time, but 152 points back of Jeff Gordon. Last year he was seventh, 406 back of red-hot Kyle Busch. Today he's 64 back of leader Tony Stewart, with Gordon in second, 46 points back.

In other words, forget about Johnson's kicking it in gear in a couple months. It's game-on now, and everyone else's best still can't beat the No. 48's.

"As for us peaking or starting to win races too soon, you can never win races too soon," crew chief Chad Knaus said.

John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at johnschwarb@yahoo.com.


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Standings

You Gotta See This

Drafting

Biffle

Greg Biffle: Don't sleep on The Biff. Last year's third-place driver is up to ninth in points and only 16 behind sixth-place Kyle Busch, thanks to a solid third-place run at Dover.

The Roush Fenway Racing No. 16 Ford has had an eventful year already: After six races, it wasn't even sniffing the top 20 in points. But a third-place run at Texas to start April righted the ship, and Biffle has had four more finishes of eighth or better in six races since.

Off The Pace

Stremme

David Stremme: The No. 12 Penske Dodge had to make something happen in the late going at Dover, so crew chief Roy McCauley gambled on a two-tire stop with 32 laps to go. That put Stremme back on track in sixth, but on the next lap he got loose and was smacked by Mark Martin, sending him into the inside wall and out of the race in 31st.

Look for the team to take more chances, sitting 29th in points with nothing better than a 13th-place run all year. With Kurt Busch in Chase contention and Sam Hornish Jr. showing promise (his 13th-place Dover run vaulted him ahead of the No. 12 in points), Stremme needs to stop looking like the third wheel.

Inside The Numbers

Stewart

3 -- Years in which Tony Stewart has led the standings
2 -- Titles won in other two seasons (2002, 2005)
10 -- Different winners in past 10 Pocono 500s
7 -- Consecutive top-10s for Kyle Busch prior to 2008 Pocono 500
2 -- Top-10s in past eight races for Busch this season
4,428 -- Cup laps this season
4,426 -- Laps by Kurt Busch, tops among drivers