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What matters at Pocono: Elite speed tends to translate

Nate Ryan, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte preview the two Cup Series Pocono races and explain why Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin need to come up big this weekend.

What matters in this weekend’s NASCAR Cup Series races? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping the doubleheader at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Saturday and 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, both on NBCSN).

Pocono is on its own island, but 550-horsepower success tends to translate

The 2.5-mile triangle-shaped Pocono Raceway is lauded for its uniqueness, but in terms of its translation to other tracks, specifically those with playoff representation, it offers title-contending teams little reason for additional research, development and preparation beyond the bare minimum. It’s a notion Travis Geisler, Team Penske’s competition director, wrestled with this week.

“Pocono is one of those tracks that’s just way off the map as far as the bell curve of distribution of tracks,” Geisler said. “It’s kind of out there on the tail, but it’s still a very good opportunity to go and try some things.”

Success across the doubleheader weekend is like found money. If teams have a good two days, great. If they don’t, there’s no reason to panic, as a bad race at Pocono bears little predictive validity for the rest of the season. Given Penske’s playoff positioning, Geisler believes the twin bill is ripe for trial and error in live-race conditions.

“We’re very fortunate that we’ve got our wins with each of our cars, so (we) are in a position where (we) can try some different things and get outside the box a little bit,” Geisler said. “I think we need to do that and try some different directions and see that even if it doesn’t work for that race, can you check something off the list or can you put something over that says ‘This was a positive’ and we just need to figure out how to work around that.”

It was Geisler who, last fall, confirmed the organization had turned its focus to 750-horsepower tracks, which makes the distribution of speed on 550-horsepower tracks for all of the Penske-branded cars a bit peculiar. Brad Keselowski ranks third this season in average median lap across all tracks utilizing the rules package, while Ryan Blaney ranks fifth and Joey Logano ranks 14th. Blaney scored his lone win of the season on the high-banked, 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway.

For Keselowski and Blaney, there’s enough evident speed for decent outings this weekend, but winning, as recent Pocono history suggests, requires industry-leading speed. In the four races at Pocono with the low-horsepower, high-downforce rules package, three of them were won by Joe Gibbs Racing — twice by Denny Hamlin, the other by Kyle Busch — with the outlier claimed by Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Each win was part of a broader stretch of races in which those teams’ rolling speed was at its pinnacle.

The 2021 analog is Kyle Larson, who turned the fastest median lap time in eight of the first 17 races: Daytona, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Kansas, Dover, Charlotte, Sonoma and Nashville. He’s yet to win at Pocono in 12 career starts, but based on what’s required to win there, this weekend represents his best opportunity, one practically isolated to just him.

The chasm to Hendrick Motorsports’ Larson is one Geisler insists Penske is working to eliminate, despite the driver’s recent surge coming on tracks without playoff representation.

“Right now it’s 110 percent, I can promise you that,” Geisler said. “We’re not sitting here saying, ‘Well, it’s just the tracks. These tracks aren’t really in the playoffs.’ The amount of speed that they have had week in and week out, it’s obvious that it doesn’t matter if we’re in the rain, if we’re at Sonoma, if we’re at Texas, if we’re at wherever you want to go race, their package is really fast right now.

“To close the gap at any of these tracks would feel like progress and that’s what we’ve got to do.”

Pocono’s restarts aren’t what you think they are

Restarts at Pocono provide a cool visual, seeing cars splay out in a way that’s reminiscent of the inverted funnel onto Phoenix’s dogleg. Pocono offers ample room to cars occupying the inside line, but that room yields little gain. It’s the line that’s the statistically non-preferred of the two, and with the choose rule in place this weekend, it contains spots that should be avoided:

  • Across the last two years at Pocono (four races), no car launching from the second row’s inside spot completed a pass within two laps of the restart, averaging a 1.59-position loss within that span.
  • Cars restarting from the inside of the third row retained position just 18.52% of the time. The spot averaged a 2.44-position loss, one of the biggest drop rates for any restart spot across all NASCAR tracks.
  • The inside (averaging a 1.77-position loss) and outside (averaging a 1.3-position gain) of the fifth row saw a swing of over three positions. After two laps, the 10th-place car averages an 8.7-place running position, while the ninth-place car holds a 10.77-place average.

If drivers and teams aren’t privy to the exact math, they’re familiar with the sensation. Matt DiBenedetto, whose restarting acumen is his biggest statistical strength, easily comprehends the disparity between the two grooves.

“If it’s Pocono, you know once you get off Turn 1, man, if you’re stuck on the bottom down the backstretch, the whole train on the outside is going to drive by you,” DiBenedetto told NBC Sports in February.

Saturday’s race will be Pocono’s first since the inception of the restart choose rule last August.

Clean laps will influence green-flag pit stops

With 47 laps to go in the second Pocono race last year, Denny Hamlin passed Kurt Busch for third place. Despite it being the final on-track pass Hamlin made that day, he went on to win the race. His victory was a direct result of a well executed green-flag pit cycle.

Leader Brad Keselowski peeled off the racetrack and onto pit road on Lap 96, followed by Kevin Harvick, second at the start of the pit cycle, on lap 105. Hamlin wasn’t brought down by crew chief Chris Gabehart until lap 120, a decision that gave him a relatively traffic-free track on which he ran lap times under 53 seconds.

Harvick’s pit sequence leapfrogged him past Keselowski, but after blending back onto the track, his lap times in dirty air (under 54 seconds) failed to mimic Hamlin’s in clean air. Expanding his lead as the laps trickled down, Hamlin decreased the amount of fuel needed — as much as a two-tire stop was long. He blended back onto the track, untouched by the second-place runner, sailing to victory.

Key in this strategy was the lack of lap-time falloff — practically none — on worn tires. Hamlin’s winning plan is one that could be replicated in the final stages of this weekend’s races, 53 and 55 laps in duration, respectively.