Pocono/Iowa Weekend Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. attempts to secure playoff spot

LONG POND, PA - JUNE 10: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Axalta Chevrolet, practices for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Axalta presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway on June 10, 2017 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Kasey Kahne proved at Indy that all hope is not lost for Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers who are low in the point standings. Without even a top-15 finish to show in his previous eight races, Kahne battled his way to a win at the Brickyard and earned the automatic playoff berth that comes with one.

Sitting 22nd in the point standings – 213 points below Matt Kenseth on the cutoff line – Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s playoff hopes seem bleak at first glance. When looking at the upcoming schedule, Earnhardt and his massive fan base should have at least a glimmer of hope he can make the postseason in his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign. The No. 88 Chevrolet driver claims a combined eight wins at the remaining six tracks on the regular season docket, including two at Pocono Raceway – the site of Sunday’s Overton’s 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“I feel bad for all the fans because they’ve been really supporting us and this has been a difficult season for them to see us not compete like we should or like we have in the past,” Earnhardt said. “I’m hoping that I can turn that around for all our sakes really soon.”

In addition to his two victories, the 14-time most popular driver has 11 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes in 34 career starts at Pocono. He has finished fifth or better in six of his last eight races at the Tricky Triangle.

If Earnhardt can’t pull through at Pocono, he can potentially triumph at Watkins Glen where he’s never won, Michigan (two wins), Bristol (one), Darlington (zero) and Richmond (three). He is particularly fond of Richmond because its layout is similar to Myrtle Beach Speedway where he grew up racing.

“We’ll go to the next race – Pocono – and keep digging,” Earnhardt said. “This is not the worst season by any stretch of the imagination – at least the cars have speed in them, we’ve just had some really bad luck. We’ve got a busy week coming up, but I’m so ready for Pocono.”

Byron hopes to continue dominant run at Iowa

There aren’t many constants in NASCAR. A driver can visit Victory Lane one week and go winless for another two years. A competitor can lead 99 percent of the laps in a race and still lose.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – JULY 22: William Byron, driver of the #9 Liberty University Chevrolet, celebrates winning the NASCAR XFINITY Series Lilly Diabetes 250 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on July 22, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images)

There has been one constant the last couple years on the NASCAR national series circuit – William Byron piling up wins.

The 19-year-old Charlotte native, who amassed a Sunoco Rookie-record seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last season, has taken the checkered flag in three of the last five NASCAR Xfnity Series events. He’s also been the highest-finishing full-time Xfinity Series driver in the last six races.

After visiting Victory Lane at Indy last Saturday, Byron will go for his second consecutive triumph in Saturday’s U.S. Cellular 250 (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) – the place where he kicked off his run of wins in June.

He’ll try to join Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (2011) as the only driver to sweep the season’s races in The Hawkeye State.

“Every time I go to Iowa Speedway, I feel like there are always guys that are better than me,” Byron said. “By the end of the race though, I feel like our team gets there. The last 50 laps we are really there and we have a pretty good shot at the win. This time around it is going to take more of the same and it is going to take an even-keeled mindset to win this race.”

Consistent Gragson making playoff push

GREENVILLE, SC – SEPTEMBER 5: Noah Gragson  (Photo by Chris Keane/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Consistency has been key for NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Noah Gragson.

After placing 28th at Kansas on May 12, the 19-year-old Las Vegas native has racked up seven straight top-10 finishes. He’s jumped from 13th in the points standings to ninth, where he sits eight points behind Ben Rhodes for the final playoff spot.

Gragson will attempt to continue his playoff push in Saturday’s Overton’s 150 at Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FOX). The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver has never raced at Pocono, but will try to match William Byron, who won his first career start at the Tricky Triangle for KBM last year.

“I really think we are going to be good this weekend at Pocono,” Gragson said. “I am going to treat it like a road course and make the straightaways as long as possible. I was watching film this week and it just seems like there is a lot of drafting down the long straightaways, and with three different corners it seems more like a road course than a normal oval.”


Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Race: Overton’s 400

Place: Pocono Raceway

Date and Time: Sunday, July 30 at 3 p.m. ET

Tune-in: NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 50), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 100), Final Stage (Ends on lap 160)

What to Watch for: June Pocono winner Ryan Blaney attempts to become the eighth driver to sweep the Tricky Triangle. … Indy winner Kasey Kahne goes for his second straight victory. … Pocono often produces surprise finishes, so a 14th different winner of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season is a possibility. … Six races remain for drivers to qualify for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. … Pocono is one of two active tracks where Kyle Busch has never won. The other track is Charlotte.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Race: U.S. Cellular 250

Place: Iowa Speedway

Date and Time: Saturday, July 29 at 3:30 p.m. ET

Tune-in: NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 218.75 miles (250 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 60), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 120), Final Stage (Ends on lap 250)

What to Watch for: NASCAR Next alumnus Ryan Preece makes his second start of the season for Joe Gibbs Racing after finishing second at New Hampshire. … A mere eight races remain to qualify for the 12-driver NASCAR XFINITY Series playoffs. … NASCAR Next driver Ty Majeski makes his second career XFINITY Series start for Roush Fenway Racing. … Two-time Iowa winner Sam Hornish Jr. takes the wheel for Team Penske.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Race: Overton’s 150

Place: Pocono Raceway

Date and Time: Saturday, July 29 at 1 p.m. ET

Tune-in: FOX, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 150 miles (60 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 15), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 30), Final Stage (Ends on lap 60)

What to Watch for: Three-time NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Matt Crafton goes for his second straight win. … Five races remain until the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series playoffs. Christopher Bell, John Hunter Nemechek, Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton and Kaz Gala have virtually earned berths in the eight-driver field by winning races. … Only two points separate leader Chase Briscoe and second-place Grant Enfinger in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings.

Greg Engle
About Greg Engle 7421 Articles
Greg is a published award winning sportswriter who spent 23 years combined active and active reserve military service, much of that in and around the Special Operations community. Greg is the author of "The Nuts and Bolts of NASCAR: The Definitive Viewers' Guide to Big-Time Stock Car Auto Racing" and has been published in major publications across the country including the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He was also a contributor to Chicken Soup for the NASCAR Soul, published in 2010, and the Christmas edition in 2016. He wrote as the NASCAR, Formula 1, Auto Reviews and National Veterans Affairs Examiner for Examiner.com and has appeared on Fox News. He holds a BS degree in communications, a Masters degree in psychology and is currently a PhD candidate majoring in psychology. He is currently the weekend Motorsports Editor for Autoweek.