Column By: REID SPENCER / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – On a weekend of opportunity at Pocono Raceway, Kyle Larson has the chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been achieved in the NASCAR Cup Series since 2007.
In Saturday’s Pocono Organics CBD 325 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Larson will attempt to win his fourth straight points race, having extended his streak to three events last Sunday at Nashville Superspeedway.
Larson also can extend Hendrick Motorsports’ winning streak to six races, matching the organization’s own modern-era record.
And during a unique doubleheader weekend at the 2.5-mile triangular track, Larson could extend his winning streak to five in Sunday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 350 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
All told, 12 different drivers in NASCAR Cup Series history have won four or more straight points races. Richard Petty holds the record of 10 straight, set during his remarkable 27-victory season in 1967.
Former Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson (2007) and Jeff Gordon (1998) are the most recent winners of four straight Cup races.
Thanks to his recent success, Larson will start on the pole for Saturday’s race, the position that has produced 16 winners in 86 Pocono events.
“I’ve always enjoyed Pocono because of its uniqueness—every corner is different,” Larson says. “We’ll do a lot of preparation looking at data in advance of the first (race). Then I’m sure there will be a lot of discussion in the debrief Saturday of what went right and what went wrong as we prepare for Sunday’s race.”
For Cliff Daniels, crew chief of Larson’s No. 5 Chevrolet, the challenge is finding a workable compromise that can balance the car’s performance in three distinct corners, two of which lead into long straightaways.
“We’ve tried different approaches in the past, even picking a specific corner to optimize,” Daniels said. “The problem with that is that it can really hurt you somewhere else. We’re really studying up on what would be the best blend in all areas.
“If you look at the races last year, the 4 (Kevin Harvick) and 11 (Denny Hamlin) teams certainly accomplished that. They weren’t bad in one corner and good in another—they were just overall good. That’s our target this year, and hopefully we can hit it.”
Harvick and Hamlin finished 1-2 in the first race of the 2020 doubleheader. They reversed those positions in the second race, despite an inversion of the top 20 finishers from the first event to the second. NASCAR plans the same top-20 inversion this weekend.
The top winners of 2020 with nine and seven victories, respectively, Harvick and Hamlin are winless this season. Hamlin is the leading active winner at Pocono with six victories, tied for the record at the track with Gordon, who will leave his analysts role with FOX at the end of this season to become vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports.
There are nine races left in the NASCAR Cup Series regular season, with two of those events—and hence two chances to earn points—taking place this weekend. After Chris Buescher exited early in 36th place at Nashville, his lead over Matt DiBenedetto for the 16th and final Playoff-eligible spot dwindled to 24 points.
For both drivers, the Pocono doubleheader represents a chance to make significant moves.
Sunday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series Race Will Produce a New Pocono Winner
In the short history of the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Pocono Raceway, five races have produced five different winners—Kyle Larson, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe.
That trend is certain to continue in Sunday’s Pocono Green 225 Recycled by J.P Mascaro & Sons (12 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). None of the five former winners are competing in the event.
Nevertheless, the race could present a significant opportunity for Jeremy Clements, who expanded his hold on the 12th and final Playoff-eligible position with an 11th-place finish last Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway.
Clements has a 48-point advantage over Brandon Brown, who fell out of the Nashville race in 35th place because of brake problems. Having run third in last year’s race at the Tricky Triangle, Clements is the highest finisher from that event competing on Sunday.
Part-time competitor Ty Gibbs will return to NASCAR Xfinity action at Pocono after competing in Friday’s ARCA Menards Series event. In seven Xfinity starts this season, Gibbs has collected wins at the Daytona Road Course and Charlotte oval to go with four other top fives.
“I’ve been to Pocono before in the ARCA car, but this will be my first time in an Xfinity car there,” Gibbs says. “(Crew chief) Chris Gayle and the guys will bring us a good Toyota Supra, and we’ll continue to keep learning and developing as we go along.
“It’s a unique track, and we have to make sure the car handles well in all three turns. It will help to run the ARCA race as well on Friday night.”
Kyle Busch Leads KBM Juggernaut into Pocono Truck Series Race
After winning his 100th NASCAR Xfinity Series race last Saturday at Nashville Superspeedway, Kyle Busch will compete in his own team’s equipment in Saturday’s CRC Brakleen 150 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series event at Pocono Raceway (12 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
This will be Busch’s final Truck Series start of the season. In his first four 2021 races, Busch has won twice and finished second to teammate John Hunter Nemechek twice.
The Truck Series’ career wins leader with 61 victories, Busch is the only multiple winner at Pocono (2015 and 2018) and the only former winner at the Tricky Triangle competing in Saturday’s race. Kyle Busch Motorsports trucks have won five of the last six events at Pocono.
Busch is gratified that the addition of Nemechek to his roster has added to the organization’s critical mass, but Busch is determined to win the rubber match between the drivers on Saturday.
“Did I expect them to do what they’ve been doing? Absolutely,” Busch says. “This was kind of the idea and the reason why we did what we did. Did I think they would have this many Playoff points by this point? Probably not that, but did I think that they would have three wins (actually four)? Certainly.
“Did I think they would beat me twice? No. So we’ve got one more. I told them ‘Don’t screw it up.’ I got to win Pocono, and then he can have the rest of the year. It’s all his.”
As a part-timer in the Truck Series, Busch isn’t running for the championship, but Sunoco rookies Carson Hocevar and Chandler Smith come to Pocono uncomfortably close to the Playoff bubble.
With three races left in the regular season, Hocevar is ninth in the standings and Smith is 10th (the last Playoff-eligible position). Hocevar leads 11th-place Johnny Sauter by 30 points, and Smith is 15 points ahead of the ThorSport Racing driver.
Both rookies are racing for the first time at Pocono in the Truck Series this weekend.