Weekend Preview: Pocono & Iowa – Blaney, Byron look for sweeps, Truck battles tighten
By Matteo Marcheschi
Blaney Looks for Pocono Sweep
Ryan Blaney captured his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory in the Cup Series’ June event at Pocono Raceway. Now Blaney looks for the Pocono sweep, a feat accomplished by seven drivers, including Denny Hamlin (2006), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2014), and Jimmie Johnson (2004). Blaney has not been strong since his win: He has scored only two top-10s and has two DNFs in six starts. This race could be an opportunity for the 23-year-old to bounce back.
Busch Still Winless in 2017, No Career Wins at Pocono
Kyle Busch has had the storyline following him all year: He is still winless through 20 races this season, and has not won in over a season. He earned his last win in last year’s Brickyard 400. Now Busch heads to one of few tracks where he hasn’t won in the Cup series: Pocono. In 25 starts at the track, he has only four top-5s and 10 top-10s. Busch also has five DNFs at the track. While he’ll likely still run up front on Sunday, don’t expect the Tricky Triangle to be the place where Busch finally wins.
Playoff Picture Tightens
With Kasey Kahne’s victory at the Brickyard, the playoff picture has grown ever tighter. Kahne’s inclusion knocked out Clint Bowyer, who is now 33 points below the cutoff. Joey Logano and Erik Jones join Bowyer below that cutoff line. There is little possibility that anyone currently below the cutoff will make the playoffs without a win. Winless drivers above the line are not safe either, however. Matt Kenseth is 51 points above the cutoff, but a win by anyone behind him would spell disaster for both him and Chase Elliott, who is 22 points in front of Kenseth. The next six races will certainly be intense for those not locked into the playoffs.
Byron Looks for Iowa Sweep
William Byron is in a very similar situation, in some respect, that Ryan Blaney is in: Byron is returning to the site of his first career series win for the second time this season. However, Byron has had much better fortunes than Blaney since his win. Byron has not finished outside the top-10 in the four races since his Iowa victory, and has captured two wins in those same four races. Byron is definitely one to keep an eye on this weekend.
Part-Timers are Back!
Ryan Preece, Kyle Benjamin, Sam Hornish Jr., Brian Scott, Ben Kennedy, and Ty Majeski, among others, will be appearing in top rides Saturday night. Benjamin, Hornish, Kennedy, and Majeski appeared last time out at Iowa. Each of them except Kennedy found trouble, but each had a good run going. Preece made his season debut at New Hampshire, where he finished second to Kyle Busch. He hopes to make that one position better on Saturday. Brian Scott is making his first NASCAR start since retiring from full-time Cup competition last season. While Scott may have to shake off some rust, he’ll be one to watch as well.
Interesting Playoff Picture
The XFINITY Series only has eight races remaining before the playoffs start, and only three drivers have guaranteed themselves spots in the 12-car grid. Some interesting characters have made their way into the playoffs, including Dakoda Armstrong, Blake Koch, and Michael Annett. None of the three have had playoff-worthy seasons, with average finishes of 17.4, 20.6, and 17.4 respectively. They, however, may have a chance at the championship come September, if they are able to keep their position.
Eight-Truck Playoff Field Filling Up
Speaking of the playoffs, the Truck Series only has five races until its playoffs begin, and only three playoff positions remain. Chase Briscoe, Grant Enfinger, and Ben Rhodes occupy those positions at the moment, and Briscoe and Rhodes have had brushes with victory this season. Three new winners in five races doesn’t sound so outlandish, and the pressure is mounting on some possible contenders, such as Ryan Truex, Noah Gragson, and Austin Cindric, all of whom lie below the cutoff line.
ROTY Battle Heating Up
Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger are not only battling of playoff spots, though. They are also fighting for Rookie of the Year honors in the Truck series. In the last five races, they have swapped the lead three times, and the gap between the two has not exceeded five points. Right now, Briscoe leads Enfinger by two points. Neither driver, though, has separated himself as a sure bet for ROTY honors yet.
Sauter Hopes to Hold Points Lead Over Bell
A disastrous race at Eldora has allowed Christopher Bell to close in on Johnny Sauter for the points lead. Sauter now only leads by seven points, and Bell’s recent success has put him in prime position to take over the points lead from Sauter. While Sauter has been strong, Bell has been downright dominant, leading 513 laps this season versus Sauter’s 203. Look for Bell to take the points lead from the reigning series champion in the coming races.