Five drivers to watch at Pocono
By Justin Melillo
June 10, 2017
LONG POND, Pa.—The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is in Long Pond, Pennsylvania this weekend for the Axalta Presents the Pocono 400.
Kyle Busch took the pole in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for Sunday’s event. Busch will be a factor, but here are five other drivers to watch this weekend.
No. 42 Kyle Larson
Larson won here last year in the XFINITY Series debut, albeit rain-shortened. The No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet has had speed all season, and after having one slip away at Dover, he’s looking for redemption this week. Larson finished second in the AAA 400 Drive for Autism last week for the fifth time this season.
“Knowing we can compete just about every time we hit the racetrack is a great feeling,” Larson said. “Last weekend was a disappointment, but we had to proud of the car we brought to Dover and proud of the effort we put in all weekend.
“We typically run pretty good at Pocono, so hopefully we can build on our strong runs in the past and try to get our second win of the year this weekend. I like tracks that have some character, and Pocono definitely has that, so excited to get there.”
Larson qualified seventh for Sunday’s Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 after leading Friday morning’s only practice session.
No. 78 Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr. was the 2015 Spring Pocono 400 race winner, and he’s been one of the strongest every time the series comes here in the past two seasons.
Truex Jr. led 16 laps from the pole in the 2016 August Pennsylvania 400, but retired 20 laps in after losing a right front tire and slamming into the outside wall.
Truex Jr. and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota currently lead the point standings over Kyle Larson by only nine, and has been a threat to win most of the season, as he leads all drivers in both playoff points and stage points accumulated.
“It’s a really good track for us the last few years,” Truex Jr. said. “Last year we had a couple really strong cars here and if I remember right, we had a lugnut knock the inner valve stem off both races. Had a little bit of bad luck here, but we had really, really fast cars and excited to come back.”
“I love coming up here, it’s really close to where I grew up and I guess it’s a second or a third home track if you get three. It’s always fun to come up here.
“We’ve got some good friends up here and I enjoy the area. That coupled with a race track that’s been good to us makes it fun and definitely looking forward to having a good weekend.”
Truex qualified second for Sunday’s Axalta Presents the Pocono 400, and will start next to Kyle Busch on the front row..
No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The two-time winner at Pocono Raceway, Earnhardt Jr. will have a mountain to climb in Sunday’s Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 after grenading an engine in practice early Friday morning.
Coming up to speed on the front straightaway, Earnhardt Jr. admittedly shifted incorrectly from third gear to second gear, over-revving the motor and sending the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet to a backup car.
Earnhardt Jr. put down a lap in qualifying good enough for 28th place, but will still need to start in the rear of the field.
Currently sitting 22nd in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series point standings, a win is almost a requirement for Earnhardt Jr. to make this year’s playoffs.
Last year, Earnhardt Jr. finished second in the Spring Axalta “We Paint Winner’s” 400, his only start at Pocono in 2016 due to sitting out the Summer event for his concussion recovery.
No. 43 Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Making his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut in the legendary No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford, Wallace Jr. is auditioning for a full time ride in a substitute role for Aric Almirola, who continues to recover from a fracture of his T5 vertebrae suffered in an incident at Kansas Speedway.
After this weekend, on the NASCAR XFINITY Series side of the garage, Wallace Jr.’s No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford will cease operation due to lack of funding, leaving the current championship contender with a bittersweet feeling.
“You’ve got a lot of people wanting to see how I’ll run and see how I’ll do against the Cup guys,” Wallace Jr. said. “I think in years past there was a lot of pressure added just from myself and today I feel great.”
“I feel good about getting in the car. I don’t have to overstep anything. I don’t have to do anything special. For us it’s just to get the balance right. We decided to pick the weekend where I get the least amount of practice possible.
“We only get one session today and one session Saturday, so there’s a lot of big factors going into this to make it a special weekend, but as far as pressure, just a little bit.”
Wallace Jr. qualified 16th for Sunday’s Axalta Presents the Pocono 400, and finished 16th in last year’s rain-shortened Pocono Green 250 in the NASCAR XFINITY Series after starting 40th.
No. 41 Kurt Busch
Defending race winner, and his luck needs to turn around eventually, right?
Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Ford has only had five more top-10 outings, and no finishes in the top five. Last week, Busch finished out of the race in 37th after multiple incidents at Dover.
“Our expectations are high, but we have to keep them in perspective,” Busch said. “Yes, we have run well the last few weeks and it’s been a matter of changing the car’s dynamic balance as far as our setup to match the aero changes.
“We’ve been cranking out top 10s, but we haven’t been cranking out top fives, so I was pushing really hard last week and the car stepped out. I took it beyond its limits and it’s because we’re right there. We’re solid top 10 when things go our way, but we’re not top five and that’s what I’m pushing for, and this is a great track for us to come back to because we won here last time and it’s one of my favorites.”
Busch currently sits 16th in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, and will start fifth in Sunday’s Axalta Presents the Pocono 400.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. IMAGES Justin Melillo/The Racing Experts SOURCES Racing-Reference.info Team Chevy