Key storylines for Pocono

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NASCAR’s return to Nashville started its run to the playoffs. However, that story felt overshadowed by the buzz of being in a market that not only has a deep racing history but has become one of the country’s hottest destinations in recent years.

Still, the playoff picture changed a bit during last Sunday’s race at the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway. We could be in for more in this weekend’s Cup Series doubleheader at Pocono Raceway, the only time in 2021 that NASCAR’s premier division will race on back-to-back days.

The Pocono Mountains aren’t as flashy as Nashville, but they’ve long been a destination for couples, families, outdoor types, and yes, race fans.

Those fans will be back this weekend at the “Tricky Triangle,” which will be open at full capacity. Its NASCAR weekend last year was held behind closed gates due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while those fans will look to have a good time, those in the Cup garage will look to finally solve the question that’s stumped them for weeks…

How to stop Kyle Larson?

If Hendrick Motorsports has been running like a freight train, Kyle Larson has been the locomotive.

Larson notched his third consecutive points win and sixth consecutive top-two finish with his victory last Sunday at Nashville.

On top of that, he’s also won six of the last seven stages, as well as eight of the last 11 dating back to the May 16 race at Dover.

That’s enabled Larson to gain 134 points on Denny Hamlin since the Dover race. Now, Larson only trails Hamlin by 10 points for the lead in the regular season standings. The regular season champion earns 15 playoff points for the postseason.

While Hamlin’s resume at Pocono is among the best (six wins, tied for most all-time with Jeff Gordon), Larson has never been particularly strong there (no wins, average finish of 12.4 in 12 Cup starts).

But with the way Larson and his No. 5 team are clicking right now, history may not mean much.

Hamlin and Harvick

Speaking of Hamlin, he and Kevin Harvick split wins in last year’s Pocono Cup doubleheader. Those were part of a season where Harvick led the Cup Series with nine victories and Hamlin had the second-most victories with seven.

But both drivers return to Pocono with no wins on the board in 2021.

Since opening the season with eight top-five finishes in the first nine races, Hamlin has recorded one top five in the last eight races. He was forced to pit for fuel with two laps to go at Nashville and finished 21st, his worst result since finishing 32nd at Talladega in April.

As for Harvick, he and his Stewart-Haas Racing team have struggled mightily in 2021. But Nashville may have given them some hope.

Harvick finished fifth last weekend, one spot behind teammate and polesitter Aric Almirola. It marked only the third time SHR ended a race with two drivers in the top 10.

Harvick’s win last year at Pocono was his first there, but he’s been a consistent frontrunner. He’s earned nine finishes of ninth or better in his past 10 Pocono races dating back to 2016.

Playoff push

Entering Nashville, both 15th-place Tyler Reddick and 16th-place Chris Buescher were at least 60 points – a full race’s worth – above the playoff cutline.

But last Sunday, Reddick had to recover from an early spin just to finish 18th with no stage points. As for Buescher, he suffered his first DNF since the Daytona 500 after debris from another car led to a tire failure and crash.

As a result, things have tightened. Reddick and Buescher still hold the final two playoff spots. But Reddick’s cushion is down to 49 points. Buescher’s is down to 24 points.

The four drivers 17th-20th in the playoff standings all took advantage of their Nashville woes. Kurt Busch is now 17th and 24 points behind Buescher. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is 43 points behind Buescher. Matt DiBenedetto is 46 points behind Buescher. Ross Chastain, who finished a career-high second in Nashville, is 50 points behind Buescher.

Of those four, only Busch has a past Pocono win. In fact, he’s a three-time winner there. But his last Pocono win came in 2016, and he hasn’t had a top-10 finish there since 2018.

Truex trouble

As Larson has ascended to the top over the past two months, Martin Truex Jr. has fallen.

Since beating Larson for the win May 9 at Darlington, Truex has only recorded one top-10 finish (third, Sonoma) and had four finishes of 19th or worse in the last five races. Among the latter was Nashville, where Truex struggled to a 22nd-place finish.

During this span, Truex has recorded an average finish of 21.6 and average running position of 15th.

But Pocono may be a good place for him and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team to get turned around. Truex is a two-time winner there and has claimed six top-10 finishes in the last eight Pocono races.

JGR has excelled at Pocono during that span, recording five wins, three runner-up finishes, 15 top-five finishes, and 571 laps led – tops in all categories, per Racing Insights.