July 25, 2019
By Holly Cain
NASCAR Wire Service
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With only six races left to set the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff field, there are plenty of drivers looking for their first wins of the season and one – Daniel Suarez – racing for the first win of his career.
But when it comes to this week’s stop, Pocono (Pa.) Raceway, more typically the “Tricky Triangle” has proven itself a venue for veterans and multi-time winners. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin scored his first career win a the track in 2006 and answered with another to sweep the season. He leads all current drivers with four wins. Seven-time Monster Energy Series champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson leads all active drivers in laps led (740) at the 2.5-mile track.
Nine times a driver has won back-to-back Pocono races, the most recent being Kyle Busch who has won the last two consecutively and three of the last four. Should he win Sunday’s Gander RV 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) he would join an ultra-elite group to win three straight – NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison (1982-83) and the late Tim Richmond (1986-87).
For the most part in recent years, Pocono has been a veteran’s playfield scattered with a couple worthy exceptions. When Ryan Blaney earned his first career Cup victory there in 2017, veteran Kevin Harvick was right on his bumper in the second closest finish (.139-seconds) in the track’s history. When Chris Buescher claimed his first Cup win in 2016, it was primarily a strategy call – he was leading when the race was called early due to bad weather.
With the exception of Hamlin, who is a perennial championship challenger, the track’s winningest drivers are also series champions – from the seven-time champ Johnson, who has three Pocono wins to 2004 series champ Kurt Busch and 2015 Cup champion Kyle Busch, who also have three wins each and 2017 series champ Martin Truex Jr., who claims a pair of Pocono wins.
A Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion or future series champ has won 12 of the last 17 Pocono races.
Of the drivers contending for the final Playoff positions with six regular season races remaining, Johnson, who is ranked 17th, leads the way with his Pocono trio of trophies. Roush-Fenway Racing driver Ryan Newman, who is ranked 15th, is the only other former Pocono winner in this group – hoisting the trophy in 2003. Johnson and Newman finished 19th and 16th, respectively, earlier this summer.
Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson, who is ranked 13th, only 31 points to the Playoff good, has a pair of top-five finishes at Pocono including a runner-up finish to Truex in 2018. Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones, who is 14th in the standings, 28 points to the Playoff good, has three top-fives at Pocono and was third earlier this season. Bowyer, who drives the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford and is ranked 16th in the standings, had a fifth-place finish at Pocono in June.
Suarez, who drives the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, won his first career pole position in this race last year and finished a career best runner-up. He was eighth in June’s race.
“I’m confident in the No. 41 team,” Suarez said. “We have a good group of guys who work hard. Unfortunately we have had a few things that were out of our control that have happened during races which has made things more difficult for us.
“Other times, we’ve been trying different things to see if they’d work or not and some of those things didn’t work. But we have some of my best tracks in Pocono and Watkins Glen (N.Y.) coming up. We’re just going to keep focused and doing our jobs.”