It has been less than two months since Jeff Gordon recorded his 84th victory at the Pocono Raceway, but already the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is back at the 2.5-mile triangular race track for this weekend's Good Sam RV Insurance 500 (Sun, 1 p.m. on ESPN). And it is Gordon who has to enter the race week as the heavy favorite to tame the Tricky Triangle once again.
Conventional wisdom has always said that a team that won or had a strong performance at Pocono would have a similar showing at Indianapolis, and vice versa. In the 17 prior seasons since Indy was added to the schedule in 1994, only two drivers - Gordon himself in 1998 and Bill Elliott in 2002 - had recorded wins at both tracks in the same season, but their similar configurations led to similar top-10 finishing orders. No driver has been better on the two circuits in 2011 than Gordon.
In June, he took command after the half-way point and was essentially unchallenged as he streaked to his triumph, which tied him with Darrell Waltrip on the all-time victories list. In Sunday's Brickyard 400, he finished second to Paul Menard but clearly had the fastest car in all of Indiana. Menard's successful fuel strategy was all that denied Gordon his fifth Indy triumph, which would have broken the victory record for the track's oval configuration - which he shares with four-time Indy 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
Gordon has been fast on flat tracks all year. He out dueled Kyle Busch to win at Phoenix in February, then crashed from what appeared to be a likely victory or top-two finish at Richmond in April. He was fast again at Loudon last month, making it clear that his No. 24 Chevrolet is at home on any low-banked track, regardless of the speed.
As with any Pocono race, Gordon and the rest of the field will have to deal with Denny Hamlin. It is rare for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver to be secondary in discussions of likely winners at Pocono, where he has visited victory lane four times. He has seven top-five finishes in 11 Pocono starts and has finished every lap in all but the June 2009 event, where he suffered a mechanical failure right after the green flag and finished 22 laps down. Furthermore, Hamlin has led 17 or more laps in all but three races and 49 laps or more in six of those 11 starts.
Other potential contenders could include two-time Pocono winners Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, and Tony Stewart. Juan Pablo Montoya and Matt Kenseth are each winless at Pocono but could also play a role in deciding Sunday's victor.