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NASCAR Weekend: Pocono could make wild-card impact

The SportsXchange

NASCAR Wire Service

Distributed by The Sports Xchange

During race weekends, there is always a level of uncertainty regarding what might unfold on the racetrack -- and who will be left hoisting the trophy in victory lane.

This weekend is no different.

The uncertainty, however, does not end there.

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series approaches the beginning of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, the uncertainty surrounding the battle for the wild card spots that grant two drivers between 11th and 20th in points entrance into the postseason is palpable.

Although Jeff Gordon, who is 10th in the standings, has yet to capture a checkered flag in 2013, he could eradicate that problem on Sunday at Pocono, where he has six career wins, which leads all drivers, current and past.

Regardless of whether he wins or not, he is sitting pretty when it comes to the Chase. If the Chase were to begin today or the standings remained unchanged until the Chase began, he would be one of the top-10 automatic qualifiers.

This weekend, the drivers immediately outside the top 10 will be racing for more than just a victory in the GoBowling.com 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Pocono Raceway. They'll be racing to make the Chase, possibly stealing a spot from another driver in the top 10. A wild card spot, however, would suffice if there was no room.

Gordon will likely need a win or top-10 performance (only 12 points separate eighth-place Greg Biffle and 13th-place Brad Keselowski) to remain ensconced in the top 10, and everyone can rest assured that he will be gunning for win No. 7.

That could be harder than it sounds, however, if recent track history is any indication. Ten different drivers have won the last 12 Pocono races and many drivers perform their best here. The last 10 victors include June's winner, Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, Joey Logano, Keselowski, Biffle, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne and Kurt Busch.

With Stewart, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Newman as the only drivers between 11th and 20th in the standings with a win currently outside the top 10 looking in, a victory this weekend at Pocono would go a long way in securing a position in the Chase, regardless of whether they move into the top 10.

Currently, Stewart and Truex are ranked 11th and 12th, respectively, separated by four points. Newman resides 20 points farther back in 16th.

Stewart and Truex, who both have one win this season, hold the current provisional spots for the Chase. If one of them were to falter, however, Newman would gladly take their spot.

Coming off a huge win in Sunday's Brickyard 400 at Indy, Newman is looking forward to this weekend in the hopes of pulling off back-to-back victories.

"It's not out of the question," Newman replied when asked about his chances of winning for the second time in as many weeks. "I'd say there's a better chance than if we were heading to Sonoma this week."

In 23 starts at the triangular-shaped track, Newman has eight top fives and 11 top 10s, including a win in July 2003. His average finish at Pocono is 12.0, second best among all tracks.

Newman is not the only one excited about his Indy victory and what it means. Stewart, his teammate and car owner, knows the win was not only big for Newman but for the entire Stewart-Haas Racing organization and their efforts to make a serious run at the title.

"Indy was obviously a big step," said Stewart, who has won twice at Pocono. "Our teammates are running really well, too. I think we still have some work to do, but Ryan's win last week is proof that we can do it -- that our organization can do it.

"We know we have the tools in place to accomplish the goal. It's just a matter of getting there."

In 29 starts at Pocono, Stewart has 12 top fives and 21 top 10s, more than at any other track. In addition, he has been running at the end of 27 of the races.

Although Truex is the only driver of the three without a victory at Pocono, he has fared pretty well. He has been running at the end of all 15 races he has competed in and finished on the lead lap in 14 of them. He finished a lap down during his inaugural visit. His best outcome has been third-place finishes in June 2007 and last season.

Despite his difficulties during the June race that left him 23rd, he is confident that his team has a plan to handle the tricky Pocono layout better. Furthermore, he understands the importance this weekend's race plays on his chances of making the Chase.

"We struggled last time and I believe this race is going to dictate whether we make the Chase or not," Truex said. "We're approaching this race a lot differently from last time because what we struggled with at Pocono is very similar to what we struggled with last weekend at Indy.

"I am optimistic that all of the great people we have working back at the MWR shop have given us a better chance with this new Toyota."

DILLON ON TOP, FOR NOW

For the first time in his career, Austin Dillon has claimed the top spot in the NASCAR Nationwide Series standings.

That perch, however, is a little shaky as evidenced by the past three races.

When Dillon leads the NASCAR Nationwide contingent into Iowa Speedway for Saturday's U.S. Cellular 250 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) he will be the third different points leader in as many weeks.

After a 12th-place finish at Indy on Sunday, Dillon leads Regan Smith by six points. However, two weeks ago upon leaving New Hampshire, Dillon trailed Smith by 12 points and Sam Hornish Jr. by seven.

The following week at Chicagoland, the lead switched hands between Hornish and Smith. Hornish led Smith by seven points and Dillon by eight points.

Although Dillon has not visited victory lane in 2013, earlier this season he set a series record when he captured the pole at Michigan in June. It was his fourth consecutive pole.

In the third week of his streak, he posted a runner-up finish during the series' first trip to Iowa. Not only did he start from the pole, he dominated the race, leading 207 of 250 laps. With 12 laps remaining in the race, he lost the lead to eventual race winner Trevor Bayne.

Dillon is hoping for a little more luck this time.

"We've led a lot of laps, we've had pit stop problems and different things happen in the races that have cost us a few wins," Dillon said. "Going there this year, I've always been pretty strong there and hopefully we can capitalize this weekend."

Overall, in five series races at the Midwest track, he has three top 10s with finishes of fourth, 10th, 15th and 28th to go along with a runner-up earlier in the season. During the 2010 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, he captured the checkered flag after another dominating performance where he led 187 of 205 laps. In his other two truck starts at the track, he finished 12th and second.

If Dillon is able to hold onto the points lead and win the title, he understands how much the championship would mean to everyone at Richard Childress Racing, especially his grandfather.

"It would be very special and it's definitely a goal for our whole organization at RCR and I would love to do that for my grandfather and every employee over there," Dillon said.

CRAFTON'S STREAK CONTINUES

It doesn't happen very often.

As a matter of fact, it has only happened four times in the history of the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.

Heading into Pocono for Saturday's Pocono Mountains 125 (1 p.m. ET, SPEED), Matt Crafton carries a streak with him that is rather impressive.

He is only the fourth driver in the series to begin a season with 10 consecutive top 10s.

In 1996, Ron Hornaday Jr. opened the season with a string of 19 consecutive top-10 finishes. Two years later, Jack Sprague accomplished the feat by putting together 12 top 10s in a row to start the 1998 season.

The most recent driver to do this was Mike Skinner in 2007 when he finished in the top 10 in the first 13 races.

That is until this season.

In the first 10 races of 2013, Crafton has finishes of ninth, second, sixth, first, fourth, second, fourth, 10th, sixth and eighth. His sole victory came in April at Kansas.

His consistency has provided him with a 48-point cushion over Jeb Burton, who is currently second in the standings. Crafton, however, is not taking the lead for granted.

"We've got a decent lead, but it's not comfortable because you can lose all that in a heartbeat if we don't take care of business like we have been," Crafton said.

In the last three years, he has had success at the Tricky Triangle. In the truck series' inaugural event there in 2010, Crafton finished third. He followed that with eighth- and fourth-place performances in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
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