Pennell’s Picks: Fantasy NASCAR Trends at Pocono
Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's Pennsylvania 400
By: Matt Taliaferro | 8/2/12, 12:43 PM EDT
Fan- and Pennell-favorite (for Pocono), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (ASP, Inc.)
This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the Pocono Mountains for the Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway. When the series last hit the 2.5-mile oval in June, it was Joe Gibbs Racing's Joey Logano that went to Victory Lane, leading 49 of the 160 laps and moving veteran Mark Martin out of the lead in the closing laps.
As the series heads back to Pocono, Logano is back in the rumor mill with his name being mentioned as a potential candidate for the No. 22 Penske Racing ride for 2013. While said rumor mill churns and silly season heats up, it is important to remain focused on the job at hand, and that is winning races — and for you, your weekly fantasy match up.
Last weekend at Indianapolis, it was five-time champion Jimmie Johnson that put on a dominant performance to earn his fourth Brickyard 400 trophy. The No. 48 car was the class of the field all day, with few cars even in the same zip code (to borrow a phrase).
This week, Johnson leads all drivers in average finish (8.8) and has two victories at Pocono. While he failed to lead a lap in June, the five-time series champion finished fourth. With the team looking as if it is rounding into championship form, it will be hard to pick against Johnson.
However, the two-time Pocono winner is not this week's fantasy favorite (although he is among the top five). That honor goes to his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
After his fourth-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis, Earnhardt took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. Leading the championship standings for the first time since 2004, Earnhardt is enjoying his best season in years, but is still hungry for wins before the Chase field is reset for the final 10 races of the season.
In June, Earnhardt Jr. led 36 of the 160 laps at Pocono before finishing a disappointing eighth. One of the strongest cars that afternoon, crew chief Steve Letarte called his driver to pit road late in the race, concerned about making it to the end on fuel. When Logano and others on the same strategy stretched it to the end, Earnhardt understood it was too early in the season to start taking gambles and losing a host of points.
With six races left before the Chase field is set, Earnhardt is now in a position to gamble for wins. Hungry for victories and continuing his consistent ways, look for Earnhardt — who has finishes of sixth, ninth and eighth in his last three Pocono starts — to score his second victory of the season.
Five Favorites: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Tony Stewart
Carl Edwards ... still smiling (ASP, Inc.)
To say the 2012 season has been a disappointment for Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards would qualify as the understatement of the year. After losing last year's championship battle to Tony Stewart in a tie-breaker, Edwards and the No. 99 team have been off the mark in 2012, currently enduring a winless streak that dates back to March 2011 (53 races ago).
To make matters worse, Edwards has a new crew chief, Chad Norris, atop the pit box calling the shots while long-time pit boss Bob Osborne handles personal health issues away from the track.
Coming in at one of the most crucial times of the season, Norris now has the task of getting the near-champion into the Chase. Sitting 12th in the championship standings, Edwards is on the outside looking in, as Kyle Busch (1 win) and Kasey Kahne (2) currently hold the two Chase wild card spots.
Following another poor finish in Indy — this time caused by an engine issue — Edwards proclaimed they are done points racing and “officially racing only for wins” over the next six weeks.
“I think it will involve lots of pushing on the right pedal and turning left and going as fast as possible, Edwards said. “We have to take chances. We have to go race. We can do that; we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”
With two wins, five top 5s, seven top 10s and an average finish of 13.6 at Pocono, this weekend provides a good locale for Edwards to get started on his quest for wins and a spot in the 12-driver Chase field.
In June, Edwards started the race from the outside of the front row, but was hit by pole-sitter Denny Hamlin in the first corner of the first lap and was forced to race his way through the field, placing 11th. Bringing the same car to the track this weekend, Edwards will be looking to finally turn his season before it's too late.
Also struggling to keep his Chase hopes alive is four-time series champion Jeff Gordon. Much like Edwards, Gordon's only hope of making into the final championship battle is to win, win, win.
While Gordon has finished inside the top 12 in the last six races, and advancing from 22nd to 15th in the standings, it is simply not enough for the veteran driver. However, there is no Chase for the fantasy racer, meaning you should not hesitate selecting him for the squad.
Gordon has been putting up solid numbers of late, and with time running out before the Chase field is set, Gordon and crew chief Alan Gustafson will be doing all they can to include themselves in the elusive 12-driver field. With the third-best average finish at Pocono (10.4), look for the No. 24 car to be among the best cars in Sunday's race. While a solid finish may not go far in terms of Gordon's championship hopes, it may go a long way in determining this week's fantasy match up.
Five Undervalued Picks: Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced at Pocono Raceway, it did so without former champion Kurt Busch. Suspended from NASCAR competition following a post-race incident with a reporter at Dover, Busch had to sit out the 14th race of the season while the rest of the competition broke the new track surface in.
Although Busch was not in the race, his Phoenix Racing team finished 21st in the with David Reutimann behind the wheel.
Despite a rocky 2012 season, Busch owns the 10th-best average finish at Pocono (15.5). In a great showing with his former team, Penske Racing, the former champion sat on the pole once and finished second and third in both 2011 events.
If he can keep the car out of trouble, the team can get the job done on pit road — and if the engine lasts the full 400 miles — look for Busch to score a decent finish, which could make the difference for your fantasy team.
The past few weeks have been a whirlwind situation at Busch's former team, Penske Racing, as it has been forced to deal with the suspension of AJ Allmendinger. Stepping into the ride and getting a much-unexpected second chance has been Sam Hornish Jr.
Thrust into an awkward situation, Hornish has made the best of things to date and has been named the driver of the No. 22 for the “foreseeable future” by team owner Roger Penske. Perhaps auditioning for his future behind the wheel of the No. 22, Hornish scored a 22nd-place finish in Loudon and a 16th-place finish last weekend at Indianapolis.
Now four races into this unexpected venture, Hornish and the entire team head to Pocono as a bunch focused on working together as a cohesive unit and producing good results.
Perhaps no better track could come for Hornish and the Todd Gordon-led team. Hornish considers Pocono to be among his favorite tracks on the schedule, with one top 5, two top 10s and an average finish of 19.9.
“I’ve raced there enough that I can go to that track with a lot of confidence,” he says. “I think I can handle the compromising challenge pretty well. I think that there's a lot of guys that don't like going there, so they've already got this negative opinion about it. Their attitude is probably not in the right place.”
With this team finally coming together behind Hornish and his confidence level high, look for them to record a respectable finish.
Five Darkhorse Picks: Kurt Busch, Sam Hornish Jr., Marcos Ambrose, Juan Pablo Montoya, Regan Smith
Best Average Finish at Pocono (Wins/Starts):
1. Jimmie Johnson — 8.8 (2/21)
2. Denny Hamlin — 9.3 (4/13)
3. Jeff Gordon — 10.4 (5/39)
4. Mark Martin — 11.1 (3/51)
5. Tony Stewart — 11.5 (2/27)
6. Ryan Newman —12.7 (1/21)
7. Carl Edwards — 13.6 (2/15)
8. Matt Kenseth — 13.9 (0/25)
9. Kevin Harvick — 14.0 (0/23)
10. Kurt Busch — 15.5 (2/22)
by Jay Pennell
Follow Jay on Twitter: @JayWPennell
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