Pocono-Texas Weekend Preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes for breakthrough at Pocono

LONG POND, PA - JUNE 07: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Axalta 'We Paint Winners' 400 at Pocono Raceway on June 7, 2015 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

A few weeks ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s performances took what could be described as a ‘dip.’ After announcing his retirement at the end of the season, he logged three straight finishes of 20th or worse.

There’s still work to do, but the No. 88 Chevrolet driver has produced showings of 10th at Charlotte and 11th at Dover in his last two starts. He’ll try to raise his performance even more in Sunday’s AXALTA presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET on FS1) – arguably his best track the last few years.

In his past 11 starts at the “Tricky Triangle,” Earnhardt has logged nine top-10 finishes, including two wins (season sweep in 2014) and a runner-up finish last June. In his last seven races at Pocono, he has only finished outside of the top five once.

“Pocono is a good track for us,”  said Earnhardt, whose Pocono driver rating of 110.9 since 2014 is best in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. “I like both Pocono and Michigan, so we have some solid tracks coming up for the No. 88 gang.”

Overall, the 14-time most popular driver boasts two victories, 11 top fives, 15 top 10s and a 14.4 average finish at the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania track.

He currently sits 23rd in the points standings, with only one top-five finish (Texas), but can turn his season around with a win and the playoff berth that comes with it.

“We were in the simulator this week working on Pocono,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve been working really, really hard the last three weeks. It’s been going great – the cars have gotten better in practice and we’re seeing some good improvements, so we’re going to keep grinding. We’re going in the right direction.”

Byron hopes to earn first Xfinity win at Pocono

A season after bursting onto the scenes with a rookie-record seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, 19-year-old William Byron has made a seamless transition to the NASCAR XFINITY Series.

DOVER, DE – JUNE 03: William Byron, driver of the #9 Liberty University Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR XFINITY Series OneMain Financial 200 at Dover International Speedway on June 3, 2017 in Dover, Delaware. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)

The No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet driver ranks third in the XFINITY Series standings on the strength of two top fives and six top 10s, but he hasn’t won a race yet.

Byron will attempt to pick up his first Xfinity Series victory in Saturday’s Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway (1 p.m. ET on FS1). He won at the “Tricky Triangle” from the pole in the Camping World Truck Series last season, while leading a race-high 44 laps.

“I like Pocono, I had some good success there in a truck and I just think that it is a cool racetrack,” Byron said. “It’s hard to pass at times on the track, but I think with the XFINITY cars there, with less downforce, it’s a little easier to pass. It’s for sure easier to pass than the trucks were at times. The track is fast and those three corners are so different, which makes it fun.”

Gragson ready for next step at Texas

NASCAR Next alumnus Noah Gragson has started to show off some of the skills in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series that earned him a spot in the program that spotlights NASCAR’s top young drivers.

The 18-year-old Las Vegas native has logged two top-10 finishes in his last two races after a slow start to the season due to some crashes and spins in the early events.

He’ll try to continue his recent success in Friday’s winstargamingonline.com 400 at Texas Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET on FS1). The contest marks Gragson’s fourth career race on a 1.5-mile track. In his previous three contests on intermediate ovals this season, Gragson placed 14th at Atlanta, 28th at Kansas and ninth at Charlotte.

(Getty Images)

“Coming off of two top-10 finishes these last two races, I definitely have the confidence I need to run well,” Gragson said. “It’s basically a new race track with the new pavement and banking, so I’m just going to watch some replays of the (Monster Energy NASCAR) Cup and XFINITY Series races earlier this year, and with IndyCar there the track will change with the different rubber as each series practices. I don’t really know what to expect other than it’s going to be very fast.”

Making Friday’s race extra special for Gragson is that he will receive his high school diploma from Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage during pre-race ceremonies.

“Having my graduation walk at Texas is going to be cool,” Gragson said. “A lot of my family is coming in for it, including my parents, grandparents and my sister who goes to college in Texas (SMU). She’s in a sorority, so I’m trying to convince her to bring all of her sorority sisters so I can have a good-looking cheering section in the stands.”

Pocono/Texas Race Weekend Guide
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Race: AXALTA presents the Pocono 400
Place: Pocono Raceway
Date and Time: Sunday, June 11 at 3 p.m. ET
Tune-In: FS1, 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: Jimmie Johnson attempts to pass NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough and tie Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip for fourth on the all-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series wins list with an 84th career victory at Pocono. … Points leader Martin Truex Jr. goes for his fourth consecutive top-three finish and his second Pocono victory in the last three seasons. … Kyle Larson hopes for a win after recording his fifth runner-up showing of the season at Dover. … Kurt Busch tries to defend his 2016 June Pocono triumph. … Pocono is one of two tracks where 2015 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch has never won. The other track is Charlotte.

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Race: Pocono Green 250
Place: Pocono Raceway
Date and Time: Saturday, June 10 at 1 p.m. ET
Tune-In: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250 miles (100 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 25),
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 50), Final Stage (Ends on lap 100)
What to Watch For: Darrell Wallace Jr. runs double-duty this weekend. He’ll run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series on Saturday and make his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series debut in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford on Sunday. … Four Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders sit in the top 10 of the standings through the first 11 races: William Byron (third), Daniel Hemric (fifth), Matt Tifft (eighth) and Cole Custer (10th). … Chip Gannassi Racing’s Kyle Larson goes for his fourth XFINITY win of the season on Saturday. He’s the defending race winner. … NASCAR Next alum Kyle Benjamin will pilot the No. 20 Ford for Joe Gibbs Racing. … The FS1 broadcast of the XFINITY Series race will be made up entirely of drivers, led by Kevin Harvick, who will be the play-by-play announcer in the broadcast booth.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series
Race: winstaronlinegaming.com 400
Place: Texas Motor Speedway
Date and Time: Friday, June 9 at 8 p.m. ET
Tune-In: FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 250.5 miles (167 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 40), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 80), Final Stage (Ends on lap 167)
What to Watch For: Johnny Sauter goes for his second consecutive win after taking the checkered flag at Dover last Friday. He’ll also vie for his second straight victory at Texas after winning there in the playoffs last fall. … Three GMS Racing drivers have won so far this season: Kaz Grala (Daytona), Chase Elliott (Atlanta) and Johnny Sauter (Dover). GMS Racing’s Justin Haley – the 2016 NASCAR K&N Pro Series East champion – enters Friday’s race coming off a season-best eighth-place finish at Dover. … Two-time Texas winner Matt Crafton has six straight top-five finishes at the 1.5-mile track.

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.