Pocono Raceway is an oddity with three distinct corners and straightaways. Because it requires a lot of compromise to go fast, one might suppose experience would be a critical factor, but six drivers entered this week scored top fives in their first attempt.
Denny Hamlin was the best of these with victories from the pole in his first two tries in 2006, followed by Erik Jones (third in 2017), Jimmie Johnson (third in 2002), Chase Elliott (fourth in 2016), Kyle Busch (fourth in 2005) and Kyle Larson (fifth in 2014).
Notably, three of the six drivers who excelled in their Pocono debuts raced for Hendrick Motorsports at the time, so that suggests William Byron might be a good dark horse to include in this week’s NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster.
Pocono is also a track prone to streaks. Seven drivers swept the top 10 last year and three of them carried momentum over from the previous season. This is a track on which success is often predicted by success, so chose most of your lineup from the 10 drivers listed.
1. Erik Jones (three-year average: 5.50 in two starts)
Jones continued the tradition of strong rookies at Pocono in last year’s Pocono 400 with a third-place finish. He was eighth in the Overton’s 400 later in the year. It didn’t hurt matters any that Jones had the notes from his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Busch as a jumping off point.
2. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 5.67)
Statistically, Keselowski is the best fantasy pick this week. He enters the week with five consecutive top-five finishes that includes a pair of runner-up finishes. He has struggled with three results outside the top 20 in the last seven weeks, but that means the competition is likely to ignore him – and an astute player can make up ground.
3. Matt Kenseth (three-year average: 8.33)
It is not yet time to consider that Kenseth’s track record is more important than the obstacles currently faced at Roush Fenway Racing. But there are two factors that make the No. 6 a little more appealing this week. Kenseth came close to cracking the top 15 at Charlotte and may be getting closer to finding a good race setup. Secondly, he has a knack for Pocono with five top 10s in the last six races.
4. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 10.17)
Last week was a disappointment for NASCAR Fantasy Live players, but in all likelihood Harvick’s crash didn’t affect much since the majority of rosters had him activated. The key to success sat in the garage – if a player remembered to swap that driver before the end of the second segment. At Pocono, Harvick has a current three-race, top-five streak.
5. Daniel Suarez (three-year average: 11.00 in two starts)
Suarez finished 15th in last year’s edition of this race at Pocono. He improved to seventh in the Overton’s 400. Since his record includes only two races on this track, fantasy players have to place more emphasis on his recent momentum and he has five top 15s in the last six races of 2018.
6. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 11.50)
Hamlin ran a clean race last week and was rewarded with a solid top-five finish. He needs to avoid mistakes for a little while longer before NASCAR fantasy players begin to trust him, but Pocono is a track he has dominated in the past. Hamlin should be watched closely in practice before making a final decision on whether to start him or place him in the garage.
7. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 11.67)
Busch’s Pocono record is actually a little better than it appears. If one disregards a crash-induced 37th in August 2015, he would have an average of 6.6 over the past three years – and he has not finished worse than 13th in five years. Busch’s appeal recently has been his consistency. The lack of a significant downside to starting him makes him a great selection for the garage this week.
8. Kyle Larson (three-year average: 11.67)
Pocono is not the type of track one usually associates with Larson since there is no high groove to manipulate in any of the corners, so a driver is left to fight and gouge at the bottom. Still, Larson had a perfect record of top-12 finishes to his credit before he developed a drivetrain problem last July and finished 33rd – 12 laps off the pace.
9. Ryan Blaney (three-year average: 13.00 in four starts)
If one throws out the high and low for Blaney, it is easy to predict he will finish about 10th. His rookie season produced a 10th and 11th-place finish. When he won his first Cup race on this track last July, expectations were raised, however, and a 30th in July spoiled a lot of rosters.
10. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 13.33 in four starts)
Sometimes a switch flips for a driver on a given track. That may be what happened to Busch last July when he won from the pole after being shut out of the top five at Pocono since 2011. For the record, he was leading in August 2015 when he ran out of gas with two laps remaining.
Pole Winner: Kyle Busch won both Pocono poles last year and has another in 2015. If he shows any speed at all in the first practice session, make certain he is activated
Segment Winners: Until their domination ends, the most obvious pick to win segment bonus points is Busch and Harvick. Keselowski demands a little attention as well, however, because he has been the third-most productive producer with four stage wins so far this year. If one wants a dark horse, last year’s winner Blaney has three stage wins to his credit in 2018.