Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – The competitive intensity picking up is palpable for the NASCAR Cup Series as it begins the summertime regular season turn toward the Playoffs. And Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway (3 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) presents a huge opportunity to solidify a position toward that championship run. And perhaps a chance at some Playoff history.
With Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell’s victory last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, there are now 14 race winners having secured positions in the 16-driver Playoff field – tying an all-time record for most winners through the opening 20-race portion of the schedule.
Six races remain before the start of the 2022 Playoffs, Sept. 4 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, setting up the very real possibility that there may be more race winners than Playoff positions. That creates a unique competitive possibility and means even those drivers with race trophies need to remain on top of their racing game to secure that postseason opportunity based on their position in the standings.
Atop the championship, Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott, a three-race winner, leads the standings by a healthy 67-points over Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain – a two-race winner.
Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. remain the only two drivers inside the Playoff cutoff, based on points standings, without a race win. Truex won the pole position last week at New Hampshire and led a race best 182 of the 301 laps but finished fourth. He’s a two-time Pocono winner and looking to regain that form this week, but he holds only a 68-point advantage over Kevin Harvick should that last Playoff position be based on points.
Blaney had a disappointing 18th-place finish at New Hampshire last weekend but will be competing this week at the site of his very first NASCAR Cup Series victory in 2017. He had top-10 finishes in both races last year at Pocono and goes into the race knowing he likely needs a trophy to guarantee his sixth consecutive Playoff run.
Certainly, there’s plenty of reason to believe the number of regular season winners could – for the first time in this format – top that 16-driver mark. There are 11 drivers outside the top-16 – but still currently eligible to earn a Playoff position – with past wins at one of the upcoming six regular season tracks.
Blaney has won previously at Pocono and Michigan. Truex has the two Pocono wins plus three at Richmond (Va.) and another at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Stewart-Haas Racing driver Harvick, who sits in 17th place in the standings, has wins at five of the remaining six regular season tracks (Pocono, Michigan, Richmond, Watkins Glen and Daytona) and is a multi-time winner at three of them – Michigan, Richmond and Daytona.
Aric Almirola, Erik Jones, Austin Dillon, Michael McDowell, Justin Haley and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. all have previous victories at Daytona International Speedway, site of the regular season finale on Aug. 27.
And Brad Keselowski, the new co-owner of the RFK Racing team, who is just off his best finish of the season at New Hampshire (seventh), has wins at half of the six tracks – Pocono, Richmond and Daytona.
Defending winners of last season’s unique Pocono doubleheader weekend include Kyle Busch and Alex Bowman. Busch finished runner-up to Bowman by a scant .683-seconds in the opening race and then came back to win the second race by a huge 8.6-seconds ahead of Kyle Larson.
There is actually a tremendous amount of winning history for current drivers at the famous 2.5-miler nicknamed “The Tricky Triangle.” Eighteen drivers entered in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race have won in one of NASCAR’s three national series at Pocono.
Add in winners from past ARCA Menards Series races at the track and there are 25 current NASCAR Cup Series drivers with a past victory at Pocono.
That includes five of the 10 active former Pocono NASCAR Cup Series race winners, who are still vying for that first 2022 trophy, including Truex, Harvick, Blaney, Chris Buescher and Keselowski.
JGR driver Denny Hamlin leads all current drivers with six Pocono wins and his teammate Kyle Busch is second on the list with four victories – winning races in four of the last five years. Kurt Busch (three) and Truex (2) are the only other multi-time NASCAR Cup Series winners at the track competing this weekend.
Practice for the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 will start at 2:35 p.m. ET on Saturday, followed by qualifying at 3:20 p.m. ET with both sessions televised on USA Network starting at 2:30 p.m. ET.
Pocono Raceway Is Up Next For The Xfinity Series
With eight races still remaining to set the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series group of 12 Playoff contenders there are certainly several drivers already establishing themselves as front-runners and several others outside the cutoff line looking to make a push in this crucial time of the season.
Entering Saturday’s Explore The Pocono Mountains 225 (5 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), Kaulig Racing driver Landon Cassill holds a 61-point advantage over the field for the 12th and final Playoff position – 61 points ahead of Brandon Brown, 62 points ahead of Sheldon Creed and 69 points up on Antony Alfredo.
This weekend could be a good opportunity for a new race winner. There have been six different race winners in the six Pocono races to date and there is only one former winner on the entry list this weekend – NASCAR Cup Series regular Cole Custer, who won the Xfinity race there in 2019.
A handful of drivers entered have won in other series at Pocono, however. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brandon Jones has a NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race win in 2020. And Ty Gibbs (2020), Riley Herbst (2017) and Justin Allgaier (2008) all have past ARCA Menards Series victories on the Pocono 2.5-miler.
Allgaier, winner of last weekend’s thrilling race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, certainly brings momentum with him to Pocono with victories in three of the last eight races. That kind of strong summer showing plus some misfortune from other season frontrunners has moved Allgaier now into second place in the series driver standings, just 16 points behind points leader A.J. Allmendinger.
Both Allmendinger and the series’ winningest driver of 2022, Ty Gibbs, suffered problems at New Hampshire. Allmendinger was 20th and Gibbs, who has four victories this season, was 21st. With a 25th-place finish at Atlanta in the previous race it marks the first time in the 19-year-old Gibb’s young career he’s had two consecutive finishes of 20th or worse.
Gibbs has fallen to third place in the standings and now trails Allmendinger by 28 points in what looks like a three-driver race for the regular season title and those prized bonus 15 Playoff points that go with it.
Of note, in the five years that the Regular Season Championship points bonus has been awarded, no driver has won it twice. Allmendinger is the defending Regular Season Champion and Allgaier won it in 2018.
Former two-time Xfinity Series champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., joins Custer as the only other fulltime NASCAR Cup Series driver competing in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.
Practice at Pocono Raceway is set for 9:35 a.m. ET on Saturday morning followed immediately by qualifying at 10:05 a.m. ET – both sessions will be televised live on the USA Network.
Camping World Truck Series To Kick Off Doubleheader Saturday At Pocono
The CRC Brakleen 150 at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway on Saturday (Noon ET on FOX, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is the final regular season race and will crown the Regular Season Champion and formally set the 10-driver 2022 Playoff field for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
A victory on Saturday could make the difference in a title run or best-of-rest finish to the season.
Five fulltime championship-eligible drivers have victories to date. Zane Smith is a series-best three-race winner and needs only earn two points in Pocono’s race to officially claim the 2022 Regular Season Championship. The 23-year-old Californian, who finished runner-up to Ben Rhodes in the 2021 title run, is running strong heading into the seven-race Playoffs with three second-place finishes in the last four races coming to Pocono.
Joining Smith with victories and safe passage into the 2022 Playoffs are John Hunter Nemechek, Chandler Smith, Stewart Friesen and defending series champion Ben Rhodes.
Ty Majeski, Christian Eckes, Carson Hocevar, Grant Enfinger and Matt Crafton round out the current top-10 in the series driver standings. However, Enfinger and Crafton must formally earn their Playoff position this weekend. Crafton holds only a 19-point advantage over 19-year-old Derek Kraus heading into the weekend. Kraus has made up ground in the standings with an average finish of 8.3 in the last three races. He’s finished 10th in both previous series career Pocono starts.
“We all know how important this race is for our whole team,” said Kraus, driver of the No. 19 McAnally-Hilgemann Chevrolet. “We can’t let the pressure get to us. We need to just go and do our thing.”
Crafton, a three-time series champion, has not won at Pocono in 12 previous starts, but does have a pair of top-five finishes. He’s finished top-10 in four of the last five races there but has led only one lap since 2014.
Kyle Busch Motorsport’s driver John H. Nemechek is the defending Pocono race winner, taking the victory over his team owner Kyle Busch last summer. Current series drivers Tyler Ankrum and Crafton finished third and fifth in that race. Zane Smith led 18 laps and finished eighth.
Five drivers competing Saturday have previous wins on Pocono’s 2.5-mile “Tricky Triangle” – Enfinger (2016), Smith (2018), Majeski (2019), Eckes (2019) and Corey Heim (2021) all scoring ARCA Menards Series victories there.
The last fulltime championship driver to win a race this year is Friesen, who took the trophy at Texas Motor Speedway on May 20.
Practice at Pocono begins at 4:30 p.m. ET on Friday followed by the Cometic Gaskets Pole Qualifying at 5 p.m. ET. Both sessions will be aired on FS1.
Following Saturday’s race, the points will be reset among the top 10 with the Regular Season Champion receiving a 15-point bonus to carry through the Playoffs, which begin with the TSport 200 on Friday, July 29 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).