There was a time when Denny Hamlin was an absolute lock at Pocono, and just about any flat track for that matter. But, as is often the case with NASCAR, the field has caught up.
Hamlin won his first two career starts at the Tricky Triangle, then was sixth or better in the next three. After two sub-par finishes, he won another two in a row.
Since then though, he hasn't finished better than fifth in four races, with a 15th and 19th sprinkled in there for good measure.
Once again, however, don't let those numbers fool you. Hamlin has led at least 19 laps in each of the past six Pocono races, and has been the fastest car on at least 17 laps in all six of those as well.
Dating back to the start of the 2009 season, Hamlin has been the fastest car on 225 laps at Pocono, 65 more than any other driver. In fact, only one other driver has even put up more than 100 fastest laps in that time.
That would be the hottest driver in NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, who has been the fastest driver on 160 circuits in that time. Johnson has finished fourth in each of the past three Pocono races, and 13th or better in each of the past 10.
However, don't entirely sign up on Johnson either, even though he just won at one of the most similar track to Pocono, Indianapolis. Despite the fourth-place run, Johnson is coming off one of his worst races at Pocono in recent memory.
His average position in the race was 15th, his second-worst mark in the past 10 races. He finished with just seven fastest laps, and a 101.4 driver rating, while impressive, was his lowest mark at Pocono since the spring 2007 race.
So, what did we learn today? Hopefully some sort of life lesson like don't go near downed power lines or don't wear socks with sandals. But also that Hamlin and Johnson have been the class at Pocono recently, but they are far from sure things.
Looking For Trouble
Every week, my fellow members in ESPN Stats & Information crunch the numbers and tell us what to watch for the following weekend. Here's what they found:
While some cautions at Pocono are caused by chicken, deer, people on the track or the ever-exciting unidentifiable debris, some are also caused by accidents.
Look for wrecks to be multi-car incidents in Turn 1. In the June Pocono race, we saw a streak of 15 straight wrecks with two or more cars snapped. That was the second-longest at any track since 1990.
Also dating back to 1990, there has been 48 accidents in Turn 1, opposed to 33 in Turn 2 and 32 in Turn 3. The extra speed carried down the superstretch being the favorite among the culprits.
The Eliminator: Pocono
For those of you new to my little blog, every week I use a device called The Eliminator to predict a winner. It's pretty simple: Instead of telling you why somebody will win, I'll point out why everybody else has to lose. The driver remaining, by process of elimination, will be the race winner.
And for those of you looking for more details, I'll post the step-by-step eliminations on my Twitter account (@MattWillisESPN).
1. Sixteen of the past 17 Pocono winners did not finish in the top 10 in the most recent Pocono race (10 drivers eliminated, 34 remaining.)
2. The past eight Pocono winners finished in the top 10 in the most recent Sonoma race (30 eliminated, four remaining).
3. Seven of the past eight Pocono winners finished in the top 10 in the last Watkins Glen race (three eliminated, one remaining).
Your winner: Marcos Ambrose