Pocono is promising as drivers look for Playoff opportunity at The Tricky Triangle

The Playoff picture is heating up in both directions heading into Pocono. Sunday’s HighPoint.com 400 at Pocono Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) will be the stage as the battle for the regular season championship and the final Playoff transfer spots heat up with six races to go.

At the top, Martin Truex reestablished his lead over William Byron with a dominant win at New Hampshire. After a winless season last year that resulted in him missing the Playoffs, Truex believes that his recent momentum is proof of a new pattern for his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

“Last year was just one of those years where we had a lot working against us,” he admitted. “But we learned a lot, and now we’ve got better racecars. We have a better understanding of them, and that consistency that we’ve shown and the ability to lead laps and win races is proof of that.”

“We never changed a thing with our team, our people, our process, the way we did things,” he clarified. “We just have better cars, better understanding of our cars, and showing up to the racetrack ready to roll with a lot of speed this year, and we hope we can continue that this weekend at Pocono.”

Behind Truex, William Byron trails by just 17 points, while the gap to Christopher Bell in third and Denny Hamlin in fourth is a little larger.

But a driver who should have Pocono circled to close that gap is Denny Hamlin. He’s won six times at the track, most recently in 2020. Kyle Busch with four and Truex himself are the only other drivers with multiple wins on the 2.5-mile three-turn track.

Hamlin would have another win, of note, last year, but he and second-place finisher Kyle Busch were both disqualified for technical infractions, handing the win to third-place Chase Elliott.

On the other end of the provisional Playoff standings, there are still five spots available on points. Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, and Chris Buescher have a solid margin, but Michael McDowell and Bubba Wallace are just one and two points to the good respectively.

Daniel Suarez is that one point below, but he says he’s “optimistic” and “confident” of earning the position on points.

“This isn’t our first time being in this position,” he acknowledged. “It’s fine and its part of racing. We can control only what we can control. We can’t control the points situation, we can only control one race at a time. There is always pressure in racing. That’s what makes it fun and why we do it.”

Last year, Suarez did have a win at this point, though. And it’s a stark contrast to his teammate, who sits sixth in Playoff rankings with a win locking him in.

But even Chris Buescher, who has a 97-point advantage to the cutline, is nervously counting points each race.

“I hate points racing,” he said. “I hate it so bad. I hate to sit there and think about what do we do about our point scenario during a race when you want to figure out how to win it, and want to take that chance. My mindset has always been if you go and have a successful weekend, that’s gonna come with stage points, that’s gonna come with end of race points. It takes care of itself.”

However, he acknowledges that “it’s inevitable.”

“We’re gonna have some new winners before we get to the playoffs, we just have to make sure that one or two of them is us,” Buescher clarified.

A win does remove the points pressure. For some drivers, like Chase Briscoe who was floored by a penalty for a counterfeit part earlier this year, and who currently sits 31st in points with no route in without a win, knowing his position clears up his approach to the race.

“We have to win and that does open the door for some strategy,” he said. “Pocono is a great place for that. You can kind of get off strategy and try some things to get track position and then just keep it up front. We’ve just got to go there and win.”

Only two drivers outside of the top sixteen have ever actually won, though, and both were sidelined by injury this year, affecting their points positions. Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott both have won at the track in the past. Both are, at least technically, in range on points, but another win would secure their spot.

Of note, Cole Custer will be driving the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing car in a one-off Cup Series start on Sunday, rejoining the premier series after losing his Stewart-Haas seat for this year.

Practice for the HighPoint.com 400 is scheduled for 2:35 p.m. ET on Saturday with Busch Light Pole Qualifying following at 3:20 p.m., airing on USA Network at 3 p.m. ET.

Xfinity Series racing at the Tricky Triangle is always unpredictable

Pocono has produced seven winners in the last seven Xfinity Series races at the track, and Saturday’s Explore the Pocono Mountains 225 (5:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) should be no different.

That is, unless Cole Custer can spoil the streak. He’s the only defending winner entered in the field, having won in 2019. And it’s a win he wants to score again.

“I think Pocono ranks highest on the list for a lot of drivers, just because the track itself is so unique and so difficult to get around,” he said. “It’s a challenge. The corners are so flat, it’s hard to get your car to work right there.

“It’s hard as a driver to really be aggressive and really get your lines right. There’s a lot that goes into it when you’re trying to be fast there. A lot of shifting involved, and as a driver you have to be on your game, so it means a lot to win at Pocono.”

And Custer knows Pocono, besides just its victory lane: he’s never finished outside the top ten in his four Xfinity Series starts at the track.

His teammate might be hoping that Custer wins again, though. With eight races to go, seven spots remain open in the Playoff standings on points, and Herbst sits in the final one. A caution-filled New Hampshire race demonstrated just how precarious that position can be, too. He’s now only 18 points to the good of the cutline, with an eager Parker Kligerman just below.

Herbst knows just how tough Pocono is to get around.

“Pocono’s a tricky one,” he acknowledged. “Each turn is so different, so you have to approach them with different strategies. We’ll do our best.”

“Turn one is super fast and high-banked,” he described. “Then, you go through the Long Pond straightaway, and into the Tunnel Turn. That’s just like the Indianapolis big track – super flat, tight radius, and very bumpy. Then you go down the short shoot into a long turn three, which is the most important corner of the track in my opinion. It’s extremely flat and high speed, but you have to come off of it well to get a good run for the longest straightaway in NASCAR.”

Two Cup Series stars have added their names to the entry list as well, adding some more likelihood that the streak of different winners will continue. Daniel Suarez will be competing for Kaulig Racing in the No. 10, while Chase Elliott will be driving the No. 17 car for Hendrick Motorsports, his first start in the series since 2021.

Practice for the Explore Pocono Mountains 225 is scheduled for 3:35 p.m. ET on Friday with Pole Qualifying following at 4:05 p.m. ET, airing on USA Network and streaming on the NBC Sports App.

Pocono challenges Truck Series drivers to earn a Playoff spot

Just two races remain in the NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series schedule before the Playoffs begin and the ten-driver field is set. Saturday afternoon’s CRC Brakleen 150 (Noon ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) offers an opportunity for drivers to earn the win that locks themselves into the field.

But they won’t be able to rely on any experience. No Truck Series regular has ever won at Pocono in a truck, although Corey Heim, Zane Smith, Christian Eckes, Ty Majeski, Grant Enfinger, and Taylor Gray have all won at the track in ARCA.

Neither Majeski nor Gray have won yet this season. Majeski sits third in points and seventh in Playoff standings, though, comfortably in on points. Conversely, Gray is on the outside looking in, 24 points below the cutline.

But it’s at the cutline itself that the competition is fiercest. Matt Crafton is above the cutline with Stewart Friesen below, and the difference is just one point.

On the other side of the Playoff standings, the race for the regular season championship, and the 15 Playoff point reward, is tightening up too. Zane Smith is just 26 points behind leader Corey Heim.

Three Cup stars have added their names to the entry list as well. Kyle Busch is the only driver in the field who’s won in a truck at Pocono. He’s joined by Christopher Bell and Ross Chastain.

Practice for the CRC Brackleen 150 is scheduled for 1:35 p.m. ET on Friday with qualifying following immediately after, airing on FS1.

LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA – JULY 24: Cole Custer, driver of the #41 HaasTooling.com Ford, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pocono Raceway on July 24, 2022 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: HighPoint.com 400
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 23
The Time: 2:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $7,243,361
TV: USA, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 miles (160 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 95), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 160)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Explore The Pocono Mountains 225
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 22
The Time: 5:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,411,027
TV: USA, 5 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 225 miles (90 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 20),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 40), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 90)

Next Race: CRC Brakleen 150
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Saturday, July 22
The Time: Noon ET
The Purse: $757,274
TV: FS1, 11 a.m. ET
Radio: 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)

Owen Johnson