With six races remaining until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, we take a look at the top 12 in points heading into the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono Raceway:
1. Tony Stewart (3,054 points)
Tales from the Brickyard: Stewart quietly finished third Sunday at Indianapolis and lost no ground, figuratively and literally, to his closest rivals. Stewart’s finish was his seventh consecutive top-10 result and helped him stay atop the Sprint Cup points standings for the eighth straight week.
Career stats at Pocono: Two wins, seven top-five, 15 top-10 finishes, 12.4 average finish in 21 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Stewart’s first points-paying victory this season came at the Tricky Triangle in June. That day he drove a backup car from 43rd to first and led 39 laps on his way to the win. Stewart, who earned the pole this time after qualifying was rained out Friday, brought that winning car back for this weekend, but promptly wrecked it (photo above) during practice Saturday. “I just ... I screwed up,” Stewart said after the accident on his second practice lap. “I got in too deep and got loose and couldn’t save it.” He’ll once again start from the back in another backup car.
2. Jimmie Johnson (2,862 points, -192)
Tales from the Brickyard: Johnson earned his third Indianapolis win on Sunday and led 24 laps in doing so. It’s hard to say if Johnson would have been in position to win if Juan Pablo Montoya had not been caught speeding on pit road late in the race. Only Montoya and his team are left pondering that question. Johnson was in the right place at the right time to capitalize.
Career stats at Pocono: Two wins, five top-five, 10 top-10 finishes, 9.6 average finish in 15 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Johnson has finished 15th or better in all but one of his Pocono starts. His only blemish was a 42nd-place result in the June 2007 race. Pocono suits Johnson’s finesse approach. He was fastest in both practices Saturday. “This is a much different track than what we see in the Chase, so it’s more of a mental thing if we could leave here with a great run and great pit stops and adjust on the car and make good decisions, we’ll leave here with confidence,” Johnson said in a release Friday.
Career stats at Pocono: Four wins, 16 top-five, 23 top-10 finishes, 10.1 average finish in 33 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Gordon has led the most laps of any driver at Pocono — 879 — but admits he is still trying to learn the track. “With its three very different corners, it’s a unique track that offers unique challenges we don’t see anywhere else,” Gordon said in a release. “They’re all unique to themselves and always make for some great racing with that long front straightaway. As many laps and miles that I have driven around this track, I’m still trying to figure it out.”
4. Kurt Busch (2,608 points, -446)
Tales from the Brickyard: Busch had a frustrating weekend at Indy, where he started 40th and finished 27th after a vibration forced an unscheduled pit stop. Busch didn’t lose any ground in the standings, however, and actually gained a few points on the 13th-place driver, David Reutimann.
Career stats at Pocono: Two wins, seven top-five, eight top-10 finishes, 16.9 average finish in 17 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Busch’s only win this season came at Atlanta in March, and he’ll be driving that same car, nicknamed “Hot Rod”, this weekend in Pennsylvania. Busch’s worst result of the season came at Pocono in June, when a malfunctioning water pump forced him to the garage for repairs. He finished 18 laps down in 37th place. “A lot of things can happen in the next six races leading into the Chase.” Busch said in a release earlier this week. “Unlike those guys at the top of the standings, we can’t afford to throw caution to the wind just yet and we have to be in a conservative mode definitely for the next couple of races.”
5. Carl Edwards (2,556 points, -498)
Tales from the Brickyard: After starting 41st Sunday, Edwards finished 15th and actually gained a spot in the standings. While it’s hard to say Edwards has momentum right now, he’s not fading like a few of his rivals.
Career stats at Pocono: Two wins, four top-five, five top-10 finishes, 12.9 average finish in nine starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Edwards’ best finish this season — second — came at Pocono in June. He led 103 of 200 laps that day and will be driving the same car Sunday. Edwards has finished in the top-10 in three consecutive Pocono races, including a victory last August for his fourth win of 2008. “With three different corners and a very long straightaway, there is a fine line between being good and being good enough to win,” crew chief Bob Osborne said in a release. “It takes a series of compromises to the setup to run fast there. The 99 team pulled off the win in August there last year, and I’d like nothing more than to go back and win it again this time around.”
6. Denny Hamlin (2,518 points, -536)
Tales from the Brickyard: After starting 14th Sunday, Hamlin’s day turned sour when he coasted into the pits less than 40 laps into the race. The diagnosis was a broken driveshaft. He eventually returned to the track more than a dozen laps down, finished 34th and lost a spot in the standings.
Career stats at Pocono: Two wins, four top-five, five top-10 finishes, 10.7 average finish in seven starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Hamlin swept the two races at the Tricky Triangle in his rookie season in 2006. However, his worst result of the 2009 season (38th) came on June 7 at this track when his car stopped running on the first lap because of a fuel-system issue. A reversal of fortunes would do Hamlin a world of good. “It’s pretty amazing really, just how tight things are in the Cup Series,” Hamlin said on his Web site. “It seems like the guys at the top of the chart have built up a bit of a cushion but from there back it looks like everyone is really going to be in a fight for a place in that Chase. You can’t ever get too comfortable or too confident.”
7. Ryan Newman (2,506 points, -548)
Tales from the Brickyard: Newman turned in an unspectacular 14th-place finish on Sunday but didn’t lose any ground in the standings. “We got behind from the start and had to deal with a lot of traffic and dirty air and there just wasn’t a lot of passing out there,” Newman said in a release. “About midway through the race, we had a few sets of tires that I wasn’t happy with. They were making the car bounce, and I just couldn’t do anything with it.”
Career stats at Pocono: One win, six top-five, seven top-10 finishes, 13.3 average finish in 15 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Newman finished fifth the last time the series visited Pocono, but not without some early-race adversity. The No. 39 Chevy team battled back from deep in the field after fixing a spark plug problem. A victory Sunday would help push Newman into the championship mix and end a 55-race winless drought.
8. Kasey Kahne (2,482 points, -572)
Tales from the Brickyard: Kahne, who made his 200th start on Sunday at Indianapolis, earned a solid seventh-place finish despite battling a car that was tight in the early going and then loose in the closing laps. Kahne maintained his spot in the standings and gained 70 points on 13th place.
Career stats at Pocono: One win, two top-five, four top-10 finishes, 16.5 average finish in 11 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Kahne finished 15th at Pocono in June and sat 14th in the points. He’s definitely hit his stride since then, averaging a 9.5 finish in six races. “We ran strong there,” Kahne said of his last visit to the Pennsylvania track. “I think we were a top-five car, somewhere in there, but had to pit for gas. I look forward to it (going back). It’s a good track for us. We learned some things at Indy that we can apply at Pocono.”
9. Mark Martin (2,471 points, -583)
Tales from the Brickyard: For most of Sunday’s race, Martin was that guy in second place, running 3 to 5 seconds behind Juan Pablo Montoya. Then, when Montoya dropped out of contention, Martin was still the guy in second but now he was battling Jimmie Johnson for the win. He settled for second, which gained him two huge spots in the standings.
Career stats at Pocono: No wins, 19 top-five, 31 top-10 finishes, 10.8 average finish in 45 starts
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Looking at Martin’s Pocono stats, it’s hard to believe it is one of only five Sprint Cup tracks where Martin has yet to record a victory. He has finished second at the Tricky Triangle six times, which ties a personal record. His 31 top-10 results and 37 lead-lap finishes are the most for the veteran at any active racetrack. “The thing we learned last time we were here was that we weren’t happy with our set-up of our car,” said Martin, who finished 19th in June. “We’re doing a little bit of different set-up stuff now, things that we’ve learned and used at Michigan and Chicago and Indy. We’re going to apply that logic to the car and I’m pretty optimistic we’ll have a strong effort come Sunday.”
10. Juan Pablo Montoya (2,461 points, -593)
Tales from the Brickyard: For 116 laps Sunday, Montoya was untouchable as leader of the Allstate 400. His No. 42 Chevy, painted in a retro scheme to commemorate his 2000 Indy 500 win, was a dream to drive. That all came to a screeching halt when Montoya was busted for speeding on pit road with 35 laps to go. He had to settle for a maddening 11th-place finish and a drop of one spot in the standings.
Career stats at Pocono: No wins, no top-five, one top-10 finish, 24.4 average finish in five starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Chassis No. 819 was so good at Indianapolis that Montoya will be driving it again this weekend at Pocono. While a win would be nice, Montoya’s biggest goal is to make his first Chase. “It was nice to see the performance we had in Indy but moving here (Pocono) this is one of our worst race tracks,” Montoya said Friday during a sit-down with the media. “Yes, we finished eighth last time here but it was, I would say it was pure luck because it was a fuel mileage race. You know I got lapped here. It’s a 50 something second lap and I got lapped. That’s how bad we were. ... We’re trying new things here this week to try to make our run a little better.”
11. Greg Biffle (2,445 points, -609)
Tales from the Brickyard: Biffle climbed two spots in the standings after finishing a strong fourth at Indianapolis, but he really wanted third. “It was just too bad we had to let up and save fuel at the end,” Biffle said in a team release. “We only lost one spot, but I had to let Tony Stewart go by there at the end to save fuel. I really hated to do that.”
Career stats at Pocono: No wins, one top-five, two top-10 finishes, 17.8 average finish in 13 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Biffle ran in and around the top five during the June race at Pocono, but finished 11th after pitting late for fuel. “We’ve had decent runs there the last few times we’ve been there but I think we’re capable of finishing in the top five if the race doesn’t come down to fuel mileage,” Biffle said.
12. Matt Kenseth (2,429 points, -625)
Tales from the Brickyard: Kenseth collected his eighth top-10 finish Sunday at Indianapolis and it came at a perfect time. While he didn’t advance any spots in the standings, he opened up a 68-point gap on 13th place. Kenseth trails 11th by 16 points and sixth-place Denny Hamlin by only 89 points. “We were better (at Indy) than we had been the few previous weeks, so it’s important that we keep building on that and keep improving,” Kenseth said in a team release. “It’s just harder to find that advantage these days and you just have to have every single thing right and it seems like we’ve got ourselves a little bit behind, but I know they’re working hard on the stuff trying to figure it out and hopefully we’ll keep getting better.”
Career stats at Pocono: No wins, 3 top-five, eight top-10 finishes, 14.3 average finish in 19 starts.
Honeymoon in the Poconos? Pocono is one of 11 active tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit where Kenseth has yet to win a race. He was 18th in practice Friday before qualifying was rained out. He ranked 27th and 30th in Saturday’s two practices. The good news for Kenseth this weekend is David Reutimann (13th in the standings) has a 26.2 average finish at Pocono. Kyle Busch (14th) has managed only a 22.0 average finish in nine starts.
Photos: The Associated Press; Getty Images