Starting up front key, not guarantee


LONG POND, Pa. -- Don't expect an 11th different winner to emerge at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, as the second half of the Sprint Cup regular season gets set to kick off at "The Tricky Triangle." Or should you?

Getting a handle on who has a shot to take home the trophy brings forth the usual suspects, and most of them have already won this year.

Brian Vickers showed speed in practice and qualifying, but he's the only winless driver starting in the top 10. And starting in the top 10 has been important historically at Pocono, and has been vital since the track was repaved after the 2011 season. Both races last season were won from the pole. Numbers crunched by the ESPN Stats & Information Department show pole sitters have won six of the last 16 Pocono races, have 12 finishes in the top three, and an average finish of 5.6.

That bodes well for Sunday's pole sitter Denny Hamlin, who has four wins at the track, but none since the repave. Still, he's not taking anything for granted and believes pit strategy could make the difference for someone starting farther back.

"Yeah, maybe not at the beginning for the first half [of the race], but certainly after," Hamlin said. "Pit strategy really gets jumbled around here a lot to where it causes people to play strategies and it allows you to pass cars on pit road, not necessarily as much on the race track. I think where a lot of the race winners, they've had great and fast cars and I remember each one of those, too. [2012 winner starting 27th Jeff] Gordon and [2013 winner starting 18th Kasey] Kahne, they had very, very fast cars.

"When you have some pit strategy that can leapfrog you past all those cars, it makes things a lot easier. You definitely can't count anyone out. As long as they have a fast car, and get it right on Saturday, typically it makes your job a little harder on Sunday and they need cautions to fall their way here and there to find strategy that will put them up front at some point."

With two practices Saturday, many drivers, such as past Pocono winner Joey Logano, were still trying to figure out what is one of the toughest tracks to set up for in NASCAR.

"We have to figure out Turn 1," he said after qualifying seventh Friday. "We are losing a lot of speed down there now. We have practice tomorrow to figure that out."

Logano ended up 22nd in the final practice Saturday, as many drivers found speed that had been lacking Friday. Kevin Harvick led both practice sessions Saturday, and Kurt Busch, who qualified second Friday was second-fastest in Saturday's final practice.

Jimmie Johnson (third), Ryan Newman (fifth) and Matt Kenseth (eighth) were among those who seemed to hit on something in the final practice after misses in qualifying.

Pocono is a track where some of the wildest fluctuations between qualifying and final practice occur.

The challenge at the 2.5-mile triangular track is setting up for three turns, each one with a different radius and degree of banking and then the three straightaways of different lengths. It's similar to setting up cars for a road-course race. Turn 1 has a 675-foot radius and 14 degrees of banking, Turn 2 -- also known as the "Tunnel Turn," has a 750-foot radius and eight degrees of banking while Turn 3 heads to the expansive 3,740-foot long front straight with an 800-foot radius and six degrees of banking.

Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Kasey Kahne are probably the four biggest names without a victory yet this season, and all but Kahne have shown some speed this weekend. Kahne is still trying to figure out why he is the one driver in the four-car Hendrick Motorsports stable who has struggled this year.

"I think there has been a touch of bad luck and then we just haven't put together full races," Kahne said. "We've had great practices over the last month, maybe a little more than that. We've been really good in practice; great at times during the race, but we haven't put together the full race.

"And when we have, it's been one and then we forget how for the next three, and then come back for the fourth one and run pretty well. That side of it's been tough and we're all looking at that together to try to make it better."

With the pressure on to secure a Chase berth over these next 13 races, the "haves," such as Kurt Busch, with one win are virtually assured a spot. Those with two wins already are guaranteed a spot. So there's more than just the usual intrigue this go-around at Pocono as the playoffs loom larger.

"Yeah if we win one more race then we are definitely locked in, but it's a matter now of developing the No. 41 team into a championship contender, not just a Chase contender," Busch said.