By Toby Christie (Originally appeared on RubbingsRacing.com)
This week the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back to Pocono Raceway for the second time this season. Even if the track isn’t known for overly exciting racing recently, there are more than enough storylines to keep you intrigued this weekend.
1. Hamlin Returns To Pocono Looking To Heat Back Up
Last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams visited Pocono Raceway, Denny Hamlin racked up his fourth win of the season, and looked to have a stranglehold on the entire series.
Hamlin would repeat the next week at Michigan for win number five on the season, however now five races later Hamlin finds himself returning to Pocono as a man trying to find his way.
Over the last five races, Hamlin hasn’t even sniffed victory lane. Finishing inside the top-ten just once, he has averaged a finish of 19th during this stretch. Heck it was even announced this week that he was one of two drivers fined by NASCAR for making disparaging remarks about the sport. Pocono couldn’t come soon enough.
Denny Hamlin has done remarkable things at the 2.5 mile triangular shaped track in his career, including a clean sweep of both events here in his rookie season. In just nine-starts Hamlin finds himself second on the all-time win list at the track, trailing just Bill Elliott who has five wins in 48 career starts.
Expect Hamlin to buck the current trend of mediocrity this weekend.
2. McMurray Clawing Back Into Chase Contention
Jamie McMurray has done what only two other drivers have done in the history of NASCAR… win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season joining Dale Jarrett (1996), and Jimmie Johnson (2006). In addition to that what he has effectively done is put himself right back in the thick of the race to the chase.
Going into the Brickyard McMurray was mired back in 18th in the standings and a whopping 181 points out of 12th. However after Sunday he jumped two spots forward to 16th in the standings, and is now 151 points back from 12th in the standings.
Don’t think about counting him out, because we all did last season when he was released by Roush-Fenway Racing, and since then he has gone on a career revival. Not only that, but moral at the shop must be extremely high, as they played a part in Chip Ganassi’s historic accomplishment as well.
Ganassi is the first car owner to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500, and Brickyard 400 all in the same season. And don’t forget that McMurray finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 earlier this season. Had he won that, we’d really be talking history.
3. Jimmie Johnson Uncharacteristically Inconsistent
Jimmie Johnson has five wins in 2010, but after the Brickyard he also has seven finishes outside the top-20 this season.
Johnson is of course chasing an unprecedented fifth consecutive championship, but if the team performs such as a yo-yo in the chase it could be good night for the 48.
Heading into Pocono Johnson has finished outside the top-20 three consecutive races, but what’s ironic is that this streak began after two consecutive victories.
Which Johnson shows up at Pocono?
4. Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Swapping Places?
Heading into the Brickyard 400 Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat 13th in the championship standings, while Mark Martin was 14th. However leaving the two have in effect swapped spots.
It is really strange when looking at the two drivers, who’s cars are fielded from the same shop, because when one does well the other is on the other end of the spectrum. This week was no exception as Martin finished 11th, while Earnhardt was swept up in an accident with Juan Montoya.
In fact just once this season have both drivers actually finished inside the top-10 in the same race. That race was Texas where Martin finished sixth and Earnhardt eighth. Can these drivers shake the odd voodoo, that hasn’t allowed them both to co-exist atop the scoring pylon this season?
I don’t know for sure, but if they want any chance at making the chase they better hope so.
5. Tony Stewart Poised For Victory Lane?
Pocono Raceway is special for Tony Stewart, as it was the scene of his first points paying win as a driver/owner in 2009.
Well Stewart not only finished third here earlier in the season, but he comes into the race on his annual ‘Summer Surge’. Smoke may actually be the hottest driver on the circuit, and he’s hardly being talked about. In his last nine races he has racked up seven top-ten finishes, and has climbed to ninth in the point standings.
Remember earlier in the season when he was way, way, way back, and we were asking what was wrong with him?
I’m sure he remembers that too, but he kicked it into another gear and is showing the hunger worthy of a Burger King sponsorship. I’d be willing to bet that his first win of the season comes very soon, if not this weekend.