All three of NASCAR's national touring series are in action this weekend, with Sprint Cup and Camping World Truck competing at Pocono Raceway and Nationwide running at Iowa Speedway. IndyCar revs it up on the road course at Mid-Ohio.
Sprint Cup Series
Pennsylvania 400 - Pocono Raceway - Long Pond, Pa.
Joey Logano knows he needs to win another race during the regular season if he wants to make the 12-driver field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
With six races to go before the Chase begins, Logano sits fourth in the wild card standings. Kasey Kahne currently holds the first of two wild card positions by virtue of his two wins (Charlotte and New Hampshire). Kyle Busch, who is Logano's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, occupies the final spot with his one victory (Richmond) and 11th in the point rankings. Ryan Newman's victory at Martinsville and 14th in points has him third in the wild card battle right now.
Logano put himself in contention to qualify for the Chase when he won the June 10 race at Pocono Raceway. He held the third spot in the wild card standings and ranked 15th in points at the time. Logano's fourth-place finish last month at Daytona placed him 14th in points and allowed him to take over the second wild card position. But he has slipped since then, finishing 14th two weeks ago at New Hampshire and 33rd last Sunday at Indianapolis.
"If I can get another win, that's two wins," said Logano, who is now 17th in points. "If they (Busch and Newman) get another win and get two wins, I'll be out. The points do matter. But also the win is more important right now than anything.
"Obviously, points come with the win, so that would also help me move up. But if there's three people with two wins, which I think there's a good chance that could happen, you're going to have to be the guy that is up there with the points too."
The field for the Chase, which starts Sept. 16 at Chicagoland, consists of the top-10 drivers in points and the two wild cards, which go to drivers outside the top-10 with the most wins, as long as they are ranked in the top-20. If multiple drivers outside the top-10 tie for wins, the tie-breaker will go to the race winner with the highest points position.
Logano is hoping his next victory will come this weekend at Pocono, a racetrack where he has performed quite well lately. He has started on the pole in the last two races there. One year ago, Logano led the way when the race was stopped on lap 124 due to rain, but it resumed after a 1 hour, 40 minute delay. He ended up finishing 26th. Brad Keselowski won the event, even though he drove with a broken left ankle. Keselowski sustained the injury in a crash while testing at Road Atlanta days before the Pocono race.
Logano claimed his second career win in the Sprint Cup Series two months ago at Pocono. He made a bump and run on long-time veteran Mark Martin for the lead in the closing laps. Logano also set a new track qualifying record there. His lap of 179.598 mph on the newly repaved surface was 5 mph faster than the previous mark, set by Kasey Kahne in 2004. In fact, the top-36 drivers in qualifying surpassed the eight-year-old record.
"We go into Pocono with a lot of confidence after winning there earlier this year, with a really strong car that's fast in practice, qualified on the pole and won the race," Logano said. "When you have a car like that, if we are bringing back the same one, I guess we'll be going in with a lot of confidence to the weekend."
If Logano were to follow the same path as Keselowski did one year ago, he would make the Chase. Before the Aug. 2011 race at Pocono, Keselowski sat 21st in the standings (95 points behind then 10th-place Dale Earnhardt Jr.). But the Penske Racing driver went on a tear during the month of August. He won at Pocono and Bristol as well as finished second at Watkins Glen, N.Y. and third at Michigan.
Keselowski ended last year's regular season 11th in points, but his three victories earned him the first wild card spot. He first win of the 2011 season came in the inaugural spring race at Kansas. Keselowski went on to finish the year fifth in points.
When the series raced on Pocono's new coat of asphalt earlier this year, NASCAR officials issued a whopping 22 penalties for driving too fast while entering or exiting pit road. Eighteen of them occurred within the first 70 laps of the 160-lap (400-mile) race. The pit road area at Pocono was lengthened during its repavement process. Therefore, the number of segments increased from 10 to 11, with the last section expanded from 56 feet to 83.
Keselowski received two of those penalties, which led to an 18th-place finish.
"I think everyone on the (No. 2 team) is anxious to get back to Pocono after our first race there this year," he said. "We had a good car, but different circumstances kept popping up that prevented us from getting a top-10 finish. It's definitely a different racetrack after the repave, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"It's very fast and very smooth, but the new asphalt took away the outside groove in turn three. That was always an ideal place to pass. Even though it's not the same racetrack as last year, we are still going back as the defending winner of this event. That always provides a level of confidence for any team."
Forty-four teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Pennsylvania 400.
Camping World Truck Series
Pocono Mountains 125 - Pocono Raceway - Pocono, Pa.
The Camping World Truck Series will compete at Pocono Raceway for the third time on Saturday, but it will be the series' first running on the racetrack's newly-paved surface.
Pocono's 2.5-mile surface received a new coat of asphalt since the trucks last raced there one year ago. Teams will get familiar with the surface during Friday's three-hour practice session.
There will be a third different race winner at Pocono. Elliott Sadler won the inaugural truck event at this track in 2010, and Kevin Harvick took the checkered flag there last year. Both drivers won it from the pole position. Sadler and Harvick are not competing in this year's race.
Timothy Peters comes to Pocono with a 23-point lead over rookie Ty Dillon and a 30-point advantage over Justin Lofton. Peters has finished in the top-10 in each of the two previous races there.
"This year, we have been going to the tracks where our results have not been all that good in the past, and we are leaving the track with our best finishes ever," Peters said. "The new pavement will change the ballgame in the garage if anyone had an advantage before. We are all on the same page when we unload. That's what I am looking forward to."
Dillon and Lofton have each won an ARCA Series race at Pocono, prior to it being repaved.
James Buescher moved to within 35 points of Peters after his win two weeks ago at Chicagoland. Buescher remains the only driver with multiple victories in the series this year. He won at Kansas and Kentucky prior to Chicagoland. All three of those tracks are 1.5 miles in length.
"We are bringing our best truck (to Pocono) this weekend and are hoping to continue to build momentum as we continue to battle for the championship," Buescher said.
Denny Hamlin is the only Sprint Cup Series regular competing in this race. Hamlin is scheduled to drive the No. 18 truck for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Jason Leffler is normally behind the wheel of that truck, but Leffler is entered in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Iowa, driving the No. 30 car for Turner Motorsports.
Hamlin is expected to make his first start in trucks this year. He has four wins in 13 Sprint Cup starts at Pocono. Hamlin competed in the truck race there two years ago, finishing fifth. He held the lead late in that event but ended up scraping the wall and fell out of contention to win.
"Pocono is obviously one of my better tracks, so I think that we'll have a good shot at adding another banner to the rafters at Kyle's shop," Hamlin said.
Thirty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the Pocono Mountains 125.
U.S. Cellular 250 - Iowa Speedway - Newton, Iowa
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is definitely excited that Iowa Speedway is the next stop on the Nationwide Series schedule.
Stenhouse, the defending Nationwide champion, will attempt to win his fourth consecutive race at Iowa. His first two victories in the series came there last year. The series added a second date for this 0.875-mile track on its 2011 calendar and continued with two events there this year.
"I always look forward to Iowa Speedway," Stenhouse said. "Iowa is a driver's racetrack. It is going to be tough to win four in a row, but our No. 6 team is ready for the challenge. Roush Fenway has strong short and intermediate track programs, and Iowa Speedway has similar qualities of both types of tracks."
Kyle Busch is the last driver to win four Nationwide races in a row at the same racetrack. Busch scored a season-sweep at Texas in 2008 and '09. He collected his fifth straight victory there in April 2010.
When Nationwide last competed at Iowa in May, Stenhouse put on a dominating performance by leading 209 of 250 laps. He held off Elliott Sadler in the closing laps, beating Sadler to the finish line by 1.5 seconds. The day before the race, Stenhouse sustained damage to the right side of his primary car when he made contact with the wall. The team avoided having to use their backup vehicle.
Sadler comes to Iowa with only a one-point lead over rookie and Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon. Stenhouse is currently 13 points out of the lead.
Kurt Busch and Sam Hornish Jr. are those drivers who will attempt the Pocono/Iowa combo this weekend.
Busch is scheduled to drive the No. 54 car for Kyle Busch Motorsports. He raced at Iowa for the first time when Nationwide competed there earlier this year.
"Last race, going into it, I knew guys like Stenhouse Jr. and Sadler had this track figured out, and their cars were dialed in," Kurt Busch said. "It was the first time, however, that myself and the KBM team were seeing the track together. Our (car) was good, and we were competitive."
Sam Hornish Jr., a full-time Nationwide competitor, will drive the No. 22 car for Penske Racing in Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono. He will continue to be behind the wheel of that car for the unforeseeable future in wake of A.J. Allmendinger's indefinite suspension by NASCAR for violating its substance-abuse policy. Allmendinger was released by Penske on Wednesday. Hornish has been driving his car since last month's Cup race at Daytona.
Forty-three teams are on the preliminary entry list for the U.S. Cellular 250.
IZOD INDYCAR SERIES
Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio - Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course - Lexington, Ohio
After running its last two races in Canada, the IZOD IndyCar Series returns to the United States with this weekend's event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Just four races remain, with three of them taking place on road/street courses. Following Sunday's race at Mid-Ohio, the series will compete at Sonoma (Aug. 26) and Baltimore (Sept. 2) before wrapping up the season on Sept. 15 in Fontana, Calif., which is the only oval left on this year's schedule.
It should be an exciting month and a half for IndyCar, since the top-three drivers are separated by a mere 26 points.
Helio Castroneves bounced right back into the championship battle with his victory last week in Edmonton. Castroneves won the March 25 season-opener in St. Petersburg but started falling out of title contention after finishing 17th in the June 3 race in Detroit. He trailed then leader Will Power by 55 points.
Castroneves has now moved up to second in the standings and trails Ryan Hunter-Reay by 23 points.
"To be honest, we were never out," Castroneves said. "We were always in the battle for the championship since we started. Now, we're closer, and we're taking the opportunities that we run very well, to take advantage of it."
Hunter-Reay had won three races in a row -- Milwaukee, Iowa and Toronto -- but had his streak broken with a seventh-place finish in Edmonton.
"We're going to need another race win to win the championship, and that's our total focus," Hunter-Reay said. "I'm committed to working just as hard as a driver as my engineers and pit crew are working. As a team, we're 110-percent committed to bringing a championship back to Andretti Autosport."
Castroneves has rebounded nicely in 2012 after his disappointing 11th-place finish in points last year.
"He's stronger than ever this year," said Power, who is Castroneves' teammate at Team Penske. "He's been really consistent on days that he can't win. When he can win, he absolutely executes. He's strong, and Hunter-Reay is strong."
Power started off the season with a bang by winning three consecutive races -- Birmingham, Long Beach and Brazil. But Power has struggled somewhat since then, with finishes of 28th (Indianapolis), 23rd (Iowa), 15th (Toronto) and 12th (Milwaukee). He put his season back on track with a third-place run in Edmonton.
Scott Dixon, who is currently fourth in points (-61), has won three of the first five IndyCar races at Mid-Ohio, including a victory there last year. Dixon enjoys running on this 2.258-mile, 13-turn course.
"It has a great flow to it," he said. "It's similar to how we've done well at older American tracks - the layouts, the undulations, the longer corners seem to suit my style, which is always nice."
Dixon won in Detroit but has finished outside the top-10 in three of the last five races. When the series competed in Toronto last month, Dixon suffered engine failure in the early going and wound up finishing 25th.
Twenty-five teams are on the entry list for the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Giorgio Pantano will substitute for the injured Charlie Kimball in the No. 83 car for Chip Ganassi Racing. Kimball fractured his right hand in an accident during testing on July 26 at Mid-Ohio.