The intensity is palpable for the NASCAR Cup Series as it begins the summertime regular season turn toward the Playoffs.
Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 at Pennsylvania’s Pocono Raceway presents a huge opportunity to solidify a position toward that championship run. And perhaps a chance at some Playoff history.
With Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell’s victory last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, 14 race winners have secured positions in the 16-driver Playoff field — tying an all-time record for most winners through the opening 20-race portion of the schedule.
Six races remain before the start of the 2022 Playoffs on Sept. 4 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway, setting up the very real possibility that there may be more race winners than Playoff positions. That creates a unique competitive possibility and means even those drivers with race trophies need to remain on top of their racing game to secure that postseason opportunity based on their position in the standings.
Certainly, there’s plenty of reason to believe the number of regular season winners could top that 16-driver mark. There are 11 drivers outside the top-16 – but still currently eligible to earn a Playoff position – with past wins at one of the upcoming six regular season tracks.
M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400
The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, July 24
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
The Purse: $6,828,051
TV: USA, 2:30 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)
Chase Elliott (+700 at BetMGM): The Hendrick Motorsports driver is a three-race winner and leads the standings by a healthy 67 points over Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain – a two-race winner.
Defending winners of last season’s unique Pocono doubleheader weekend are Kyle Busch (+750) and Alex Bowman +2000). Busch finished runner-up to Bowman by a scant 0.683 seconds in the opening race and then came back to win the second race by a whopping 8.6 seconds ahead of Kyle Larson.
Ryan Blaney (+1000): The Team Penske driver is one of only two drivers inside the Playoff cutoff, based on points standings, without a race win. He had a disappointing 18th-place finish at New Hampshire but will be competing this week at the site of his very first NASCAR Cup Series victory in 2017.
Blaney had top-10 finishes in both races last year at Pocono and goes into the race knowing he likely needs a trophy to guarantee his sixth consecutive Playoff run. Blaney has won previously at Pocono and Michigan.
Martin Truex Jr. (+1000): The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is the other inside the cutoff without a win. Truex won the pole position last week at New Hampshire and led a race-best 182 of the 301 laps but finished fourth. He’s a two-time Pocono winner and looking to regain that form this week, but he holds only a 68-point advantage over Kevin Harvick should that last Playoff position be based on points.
Truex has two Pocono wins plus three at Richmond (Va.) and another at Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Kevin Harvick (+1200): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver sits in 17th place in the standings, has wins at five of the remaining six tracks (Pocono, Michigan, Richmond, Watkins Glen and Daytona) and is a multi-time winner at three of them (Michigan, Richmond and Daytona).
Brad Keselowski (+6600): The new co-owner of the RFK Racing team is just off his best finish of the season at New Hampshire (seventh). He also has wins at half of the six tracks (Pocono, Richmond and Daytona).
Aric Almirola (+4000), Erik Jones (+6600), Austin Dillon (+10000), Michael McDowell (+25000), Justin Haley (+50000) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (+10000) all have previous victories at Daytona International Speedway, site of the regular season finale on Aug. 27.
Tricky Triangle Experience Key
There is actually a tremendous amount of winning history for current drivers at the famous 2.5-miler nicknamed “The Tricky Triangle.” Eighteen drivers entered in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race have won in one of NASCAR’s three national series at Pocono.
Add in winners from past ARCA Menards Series races at the track and there are 25 current NASCAR Cup Series drivers with a past victory at Pocono.
That includes five of the 10 active former Pocono NASCAR Cup Series race winners, who are still vying for that first 2022 trophy, including Truex, Harvick, Blaney, Chris Buescher (+1000) and Keselowski.
JGR driver Denny Hamlin (+800) leads all current drivers with six Pocono wins and his teammate Kyle Busch is second on the list with four victories – winning races in four of the last five years. Kurt Busch (three) and Truex (two) are the only other multi-time NASCAR Cup Series winners at the track competing this weekend.
–By Field Level Media (NASCAR NewsWire contributed to this story).