NASCAR Nation previews a return to Pennsylvania this week for the second Pocono race of the season. With only six of the spots in the chase locked down, there are plenty of Sprint Cup drivers who are looking to confirm a spot this weekend. Dale Jr.is hoping to be a spoiler and sweep the races at this track with a follow-up to his spring win, since he clinched a spot in New Hampshire. A few perennial contenders are feeling the heat so close to the end of the NASCAR regular season. Watching Ryan Blaney tear up the Camping World Truck Series has fans anticipating his attempt to defend his last win. With 12 different drivers taking wins in the Nationwide series this season, the field in Iowa is more open than it has been in years as well. From the format changes in the chase, to the increased events at NASCAR-owned tracks like Iowa, to the 25 extra miles added to the Pocono race for the Camping World series race, there continues to be an effort to improve the product on the track for fans.
The Camping World Truck Series race still has plenty of drama for NASCAR fans. Blaney is clearly the one everyone is talking about, returning to defend his win in the last race after taking the points lead with a run of six top-ten finishes in a row, but there are plenty of favorites to be had with this field. Joey Coulter also has a win on this track, and it is considered his best, so he will present a challenge to Blaney’s attempt at a repeat. Defending champion, Matt Crafton, with top-ten finishes in the last four Pocono races, is more than comfortable on this track. After losing the points lead to Blaney, he has plenty of motivation to climb back on top. With 13 newcomers who have never made the field at Pocono before racing as well, there might just be a surprise driver taking the checkered flag as well. The added 25 miles is not a lot in terms of testing the drivers’ endurance, but it does present a tactical consideration in a race which has seen multiple green/white checkered finishes in recent years.
In the Nationwide Series, Ty Dillon is coming hard and fast after Chase Elliott and the points lead. Fourth in the standings, he is just 15 points back after his first Nationwide victory in Indianapolis. Of course, Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler, in second and third respectively, may have something to say about that. Elliott and his No. 9 car have a target painted on the bumper as everyone is after that Nationwide Series title and the chances at needed points get fewer each week. Iowa this time around ought to be a little less hectic for Elliott. In the spring race, he flew across country to graduate from High School over the weekend, before jetting back to compete in the race. This time around, it will be all business.
The Sprint Cup Series is building into a pressure cooker for those drivers who have not yet made the chase. After coming close last week, Kasey Kahne is hoping to repeat his victory from last summer at Pocono to qualify for the chase. He has the numbers to put himself in good standing if he can get that elusive win. More than a few drivers have their eyes on Pocono for that same reason. Coming down to the wire with only six races to go to make the cut, tempers are flaring and the pressure is on. Even among those drivers who have a win, there are some who still have something to prove. After his car failed a post-race inspection last week, Denny Hamlin will be working without his crew chief, Darian Grubb, and minus 75 driver points. He will be looking to make up as many of those points as possible. Dale Jr. will be looking for a repeat of the spring race to keep pace with what has been his best season in years. Every driver who has already clinched still has the incentive of the three extra points per win once the chase starts and the points reset to 2000, so none of the drivers lack for motivation under the new format.
NASCAR has made a concerted effort to maintain excitement through the entire season this year with everything from rules changes to making NASCAR-owned tracks like Iowa a featured venue for the Nationwide series. Coming to the end of the regular season, Pocono is just the beginning of the crucible of the final races before the chase.
Commentary By Jim Malone
Photos courtesy of NASCARMedia