Pocono II: Round 21 preview

*Race To The Chase, Week 5: Johnson Gains Crucial Bonus Points *His Track: Denny Hamlin To Make 100th Series Start At Pocono *NASCAR CAM: NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton *'On The Bubble': Tough Battle For 12th And Final Chase...


*Race To The Chase, Week 5: Johnson Gains Crucial Bonus Points
*His Track: Denny Hamlin To Make 100th Series Start At Pocono
*NASCAR CAM: NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton
*'On The Bubble': Tough Battle For 12th And Final Chase Spot
*In The Loop: Stewart, Gordon Hoping For First 2008 Win At Pocono
*Top 35: Allmendinger Battles Back

A Champion's Chase: Johnson Back In The Winning Mix

One win doesn't launch a trend, but Jimmie Johnson's (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet) victory last Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway might be considered a salvo.

The reigning and two-time defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion heads into this week's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway on a mini-surge -- one that might boost his seeding status for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

That, in turn, could boost Johnson's quest for a third consecutive series title.

Now with two victories in 2008, Johnson is fourth in the series standings and in a three-way tie in the Chase bonus points battle. And if last year's numbers repeat, he'll improve both those statistics.

In the 2007 Race to the Chase - the 10-race stretch preceding the Chase - Johnson won two events and posted an average finish of 12.5.

Drivers get 10 bonus points for each win in the first 26 races, and Chase seeding is done according to bonus-point totals. Which means a total of 60 bonus points remain until the '08 Chase - or six events, beginning this weekend in Pocono.

Standings leader Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&M's Toyota) holds the top spot with seven wins - 70 bonus points - but in Johnson's last two races, he finished as runner-up to Busch at Chicagoland Speedway before winning at Indy.

He's also won at three of the remaining six tracks in the Race to the Chase and swept Pocono in 2004.

Race To The Chase: Sixty Bonus Points Remain

With 60 bonus points available before the 2008 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup begins Sept. 14 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the Race to the Chase means winning is paramount.

Standings leader Kyle Busch has the inside track with seven wins (70 bonus points).

Carl Edwards (No. 99 Office Depot Ford), Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne (No. 9 Budweiser Dodge) are tied for second place with 20 bonus points. Kahne and Johnson each have two wins; Edwards has three, but forfeited 10 bonus points after his car didn't pass post-race inspection at Las Vegas in March.

Based on tiebreakers, Edwards would be seeded second if the Chase started now, followed by Johnson and Kahne. Four other drivers currently in the top 12 have one win thus far in '08 - Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet), Clint Bowyer (No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet), Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Express Toyota) and Jeff Burton (No. 31 AT&T Wireless Chevrolet) - and will look to gain ground on the top four this Sunday at Pocono.

Earnhardt, Bowyer, Hamlin and Burton would be seeded fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.

Two-Time Pocono Winner Denny Hamlin To Make 100th Series Start On Sunday

He's a Richmond, Va.-area native who claims Richmond International Raceway as his home track, but if any driver boasts a "home away from home", Pocono Raceway is it for Denny Hamlin.

He won there the first time he saw the place, as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' eventual Raybestos Rookie of the Year in 2006.

From the pole.

Not only that, Hamlin swept Pocono's second event that season.

Again, from the pole.

So, fitting that his 100th series start comes in Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500.

At Pocono.

"I've had the benefit of great equipment, having the same crew chief and crew for three years and having FedEx as a sponsor from the beginning," Hamlin said. "As a young driver coming into the series, I know I have been really fortunate to have that consistency all around me."

Certainly Pocono's 2.5-mile triangular layout has rewarded Hamlin over the past two seasons.

In five starts there, he has two poles, two wins, five top-10 finishes and an overall average finish of 2.8.

Perhaps even more significant: Hamlin's Pocono prowess jump-started what's been a successful career to date: He has 51 top-10 finishes in his first 99 starts and was a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contender in '06 and '07.

Back to Pocono, where Hamlin dominates NASCAR's pre-race Loop Data statistics for the track. He leads four categories - Driver Rating (130.4), Average Running Position (5.6). Average Green Flag Speed (160.024 mph) and Laps in the Top 15 (839).

He's second in Fastest Laps Run (193) and fifth-best in Quality Passes (192).

On The Cam: NASCAR Vice President Of Competition Robin Pemberton

Robin Pemberton, NASCAR Vice President of Competition, was the guest Tuesday on the weekly NASCAR CAM Video Teleconference.

He addressed tire issues from last Sunday's event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, among other topics.

Following are some excerpts.

Q: The outlook thus far?

Pemberton: "I think it deserves to be said that the race didn't come off like we had hoped. The fans didn't get what they exactly wanted, and we'll do everything in our power and it won't happen again, I can tell you that much. So we're going to put a lot of effort towards it and get a better plan moving forward.

"I just want to let everybody know and get ahead of that, and try to put this behind us and we'll work hard, all of us that are involved at Indianapolis - from the tire manufacturer to NASCAR, to Indianapolis Motor Speedway."

Q: Can the 2008 test schedule be modified?

Pemberton: "When you look at the racetracks, there's a lot of them that are very similar. Chicago, we just had a great race there. We've had the race at Charlotte and Atlanta.

"So I think when we move forward, we've got one more test left that would be at Charlotte before the end of the year. So I think we should be in good shape as far as the testing goes.

Q: What will "moving forward" entail?

Pemberton: "I think what we'll have to do is just put the extra effort forward and make sure that we get everything covered as it relates to what we're all talking about today which is tires and car. I think the test policy moving forward for next year will be a little bit more liberal and will help us do that.

Q: What has been the impact of engineering and technology on racing?

Pemberton: "It's something that I think as the sport has grown, we've had a really, really big influx of new, young, talented guys and gals out of college that have really taken this sport and pushed it very, very quickly along in the technology world. So it's just been a logical progression over the last ten years. It's grown immensely."

Q: How do you keep from getting down when problems occur?

Pemberton: "That's what makes us one of the best motorsports in the entire world. We take it personal. When we see things we know we can fix, we're going to go fix them. That's what we're going to set out to do. We're going to put this behind us. When we go back to Indianapolis next year, we'll probably have the best Brickyard race we've ever had."

In The Loop: Gordon And Stewart Could End Winless Streak At Pocono

Two glaring absences in the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners column remain - Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) and Tony Stewart (No. 20 Home Depot Toyota).

Gordon has had at least two victories in every season since 1994. The same goes for Stewart, who has notched at least two wins every year since his rookie campaign in 1999.

But through 20 races in 2008, neither has entered Victory Lane.

That could change this week at Pocono, where Gordon has four wins and Stewart has one. They both also have strong recent statistics there.

Over the past seven races, Stewart has a Driver Rating of 102.2 (third-best), an Average Running Position of 10.7 (fourth), 42 Fastest Laps Run (eighth) and 1,032 (78.8%) Laps in the Top 15 (second).

Gordon has comparable numbers over that same span. Since 2005, the four-time series champion has a Driver Rating of 94.9 (eighth), an Average Running Position of 12.1 (eighth), 535 Green Flag Passes (third) and 869 (66.3%) Laps in the Top 15.

Though Brian Vickers (No. 83 Team Red Bull Toyota) has one career win, he'll join Stewart and Gordon as winless 2008 drivers with an excellent shot at Pocono triumph.

Whether in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet or a Red Bull Racing Toyota, Vickers has excelled at the 2.5-mile track.

Over the past seven Pocono races (three for Red Bull, four for Hendrick), Vickers has earned a Driver Rating of 97.9 (fifth), an Average Running Position of 11.8 (second), 68 Fastest Laps Run (fourth) and 951 (72.6%) Laps in the Top 15 (sixth). He came close to winning his second-career race in June, finishing second at Pocono behind Kasey Kahne.

Kahne won from the pole in June and looks to become the seventh driver to sweep at Pocono -- and the third in the last five years to do so. If he has a race that even comes close to the one in June, he'll have a solid shot.

Kahne dominated, posting a Driver Rating of 145.2 (a perfect rating is 150.0), an Average Running Position of 6.9 and 57 Fastest Laps Run.

Halfway Next Time By: Teammates Battle For 12th-Place Spot

When the Race to the Chase started at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet) was two points out of 12th place and the final berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

Four races later, Harvick finds himself right back where he started, on the wrong end of the bubble by two points.

The difference is that this time Harvick is trailing Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer. Harvick's 37th-place finish in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, coupled with Bowyer's 19th-place finish, dropped him from ninth back to 13th.

Kenseth, who was 12th going into New Hampshire, hasn't moved much himself. He's currently 11th, six points ahead of Harvick.

The pattern doesn't seem to be breaking anytime soon. With six races remaining until the Chase cutoff (after the 26th race of the season, at Richmond International Raceway), competition for the last Chase berth is as tight as it has been.

"Wide open," said two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson on the Chase battle. "A hundred percent, it is wide open."

The numbers confirm Johnson's statement.

Apart from the six points that separate 11th and 13th place, 14th-place David Ragan (No. 6 AAA Insurance Ford) is 56 points out of 12th, 15th-place Brian Vickers is 132 points back and 16th-place Ryan Newman (No. 12 Avis Dodge) is 144 points back.

The battle is just as tight on the "right" side of the bubble.

Tenth-place Tony Stewart only enjoys a 39-point cushion over Harvick, ninth-place Kasey Kahne leads Harvick by 81 points, eighth-place Denny Hamlin by 93 points and seventh-place Greg Biffle is only 100 points above the Chase bubble.

As Harvick can attest after Indianapolis, nobody can feel confident they are in a safe Chase position.

The Top 35: Riggs In 35th, McDowell and Allmendinger Not Far Behind

It's a big week for AJ Allmendinger, whose 12th-place finish in the June event at Pocono marked a major steppingstone in the second-year driver's stock-car education. Now, he has momentum behind him as he returns.

Last week's 10th-place effort at Indianapolis is Allmendinger's new career-high finish, and his No. 84 Team Red Bull Toyota owned by Dietrich Mateschitz is only 63 points out of 35th place in the series owner standings.

Each week's top 35 are guaranteed starting spots; those outside 35th must qualify on time.

"If we keep doing the same things we've been doing, then the points will take care of themselves," Allmendinger said.

He's rebounded nicely from a trying start to the season, when he failed to qualify for the first three events and was asked to step aside for five races for veteran driver Mike Skinner.

The addition of crew chief Jimmy Elledge three weeks ago is the latest move. The duo combined for a 13th-place finish at Chicagoland prior to Indy.

Since returning in the season's ninth event, Allmendinger and his team have jumped from 51st in the owner standings to 37th.

They're currently only 49 points behind 36th and the No. 00 Champion Mortgage Toyota driven by Michael McDowell and owned by Rob Kauffman.

"Last time in Pocono, we ran in the top five to top 10 the whole race, but strategy didn't play in our favor," Allmendinger said. "We ended up taking home a 12th-place finish, when I think we could have finished in the top 10.

"Strategy is where Jimmy Elledge shines, though. He's just good at knowing the right strategy at the right times, good at knowing how to get your car up front, and once you get up front, it's a lot easier to stay there."

NSCS, Etc.

Double Duty Calls ... Five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers will hopscotch between tracks this week, alternating primary duties at Pocono with the NASCAR Nationwide Series event at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal.

Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, Greg Biffle (No. 16 DISH Turbo HD Ford) and David Reutimann (No. 44 UPS Toyota) all will compete in Saturday's event north of the border as well as Sunday's Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500.

Another NASCAR Sprint Cup driver - Raybestos Rookie of the Year candidate and Montreal native Patrick Carpentier - will concentrate on the NASCAR Nationwide Series event in his hometown for Gillett Evernham Motorsports.

Two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Terry Labonte will drive Carpentier's No. 10 Charter Dodge at Pocono.

"I wish Patrick good luck at the race in Montreal," Labonte said. "There's a really good possibility that he'll get his first victory up there. I've been watching him and this Charter team through the year and they've had some impressive runs. We'll be looking to add to that streak this weekend."

Petty Enterprises' No. 45 Driver Lineup ... Three drivers will split time at the wheel of Petty Enterprises' No. 45 Marathon American Spirit Motor Oil Dodge for the next three events.

Chad McCumbee, 23, will attempt to qualify the car at Pocono, followed by regular driver Kyle Petty at Watkins Glen International and Labonte at Michigan International Speedway.

Heading to Pocono, the No. 45 is 41st in the series owner standings. The top 35 in those standings are guaranteed starting berths each week. All others must qualify on time.

Up Next: Race To The Chase, Week 6 At Watkins Glen International

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returns to the road course at Watkins Glen International next week for the Centurion Boats at the Glen on Sunday, Aug. 10.

Tony Stewart is the defending champion. Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) is the defending pole winner.

Jeff Gordon is NASCAR's all-time leader with nine career road-course wins. He has four at Watkins Glen and five at Infineon Raceway, leading all drivers in wins at each track.

***

The Race: Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500

The Place: Pocono Raceway
The Date: Sunday, Aug. 3

The Time: 2 p.m. (ET)
TV: ESPN, pre-race at 1 p.m. (ET)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS Satellite.

The Track: 2.5-mile triangle
The Distance: 500 miles/200 laps

2007 Winner: Kurt Busch
2007 Polesitter: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Schedule:
Friday- Practice, noon-1:30 p.m. Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday -- Practice - 10-10:45 a.m. and 11:20 a.m.-12:20 p.m.

-credit: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Terry Labonte , Tony Stewart , Mike Skinner , Kyle Petty , Greg Biffle , Kurt Busch , Ryan Newman , Patrick Carpentier , Jimmie Johnson , Michael McDowell , Gilles Villeneuve , Kasey Kahne , David Reutimann , Brian Vickers , Carl Edwards , Clint Bowyer , David Ragan , Denny Hamlin , Chad McCumbee , Kyle Busch
Teams Red Bull Racing , Hendrick Motorsports