Sunday’s M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 (3 p.m. ET, USA, MRN) race preview for Pocono

Are we nearing the point to where “points” don’t matter during the regular season of the NASCAR Cup Series anymore? Yes, points matter in the 10 race postseason to where the slimmest of margins will advance drivers or not. But in a format that requires winning, one could say a trip to victory lane far outweighs anything else during the final 10 weeks of the year too.

A win advances you onto the next round. Under the format, the series champion won the season finale every year since 2014.

Winning matters.

It matters now even more so in the regular season too. Most years, the 5 playoff points for a win and the guaranteed spot comes with it. Now, a win doesn’t provide all that much comfort anymore.

That’s because as we head to the Pocono Raceway for the 21st event of this new Next Gen race car, we’ve already seen 14 different drivers visit victory lane this year. 3rd in points hasn’t won a race yet. Neither has 4th. They hold the final 2 wildcard spots in a year that now seems like we’re going to eclipse the 16 winner mark.

Daytona is the regular season finale. Indianapolis is next Sunday. Watkins Glen is the 2nd to last race of the regular season. Road courses have produced a first time winner in all 3 run this year. Both superspeedway’s have also produced a 1st time winner.

I don’t see that trend coming to a full halt now. These 3 tracks make up the final 7 weeks of the regular season. I can see at least 1 or dare I say, 2, new winners coming on them?

Prime Sports NASCAR Pocono Preview Show Here

That pushes us to 15th or even maybe 16 different winners. What if 1 of them aren’t Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr.?

Both are past season champions. Harvick has 15 playoff appearances, tied for most all time. Truex has 9 (tied for 10th). Harvick has made the playoffs 12 straight years. Truex 7.

In terms of Championship 4’s, each have 5 in 8 years which is tied with Kyle Busch for most ever in this span. Could we really see them miss the playoffs completely this year?

That’s where this is heading.

Harvick hasn’t won a race since Sept. 2020 at Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway (63 races). Truex hasn’t won since Richmond in Sept. 2021 (28 races). Can they garner enough speed to find victory lane over the next 6 week stretch to the postseason?

AVONDALE, ARIZONA – MARCH 13: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Shops Toyota, signs autographs for fans during the red carpet prior to the Ruoff Mortgage 500 during at Phoenix Raceway on March 13, 2022 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images)

I mean you have Daytona as the regular season finale plus 2 more road course races left. All 3 road course events run this season were won by a 1st time Cup Series winner. That’s a potential to see 4 more new winners this season which definitely makes these winless drivers and even some of the drivers who have won nervous.

Maybe Pocono is what the doctor ordered for both Truex and Harvick too though.

Truex won this race in 2015 and 2018. Furthermore, he has five top six finishes in his last 10 tries on the Tricky Triangle.

Harvick won the Saturday race of 2020 and was second in the Sunday one. He has nine top six finishes, eight of which being in the top four, his last 11 Pocono starts. Also, he has five runner-ups in 16 starts at Pocono with SHR but none prior.

They have to win on Sunday to feel good about their standing despite entering 6th (Truex Jr.) and 11th (Harvick) respectively in total points accumulated this year.

However, Ryan Blaney would like a word too. He was 5th and 6th respectively last year. Blaney also has 4 top 6’s in his last 6 starts on the season at that.

Maybe someone like Bubba Wallace who was 3rd last week and racing for a manufacturer in Toyota who’s been dominant here lately. Toyota has won 7 of the last 9 races on the Tricky Triangle.

That’s good news for Wallace and Truex.

Chevrolet has 1 win in the last 11 Tricky Triangle races but that win came last year. This is a perfect spot for Kyle Larson, William Byron and Alex Bowman to get their seasons back going again.

Larson has 0 wins, 1 runner-up, 5 top 5’s and 7 top 10’s over the last 12 points paying races. Bowman has 1 top 5 and 4 top 10’s in this same span. Byron has 0 top 5’s and 1 top 10 himself. Chase Elliott has 3x as many wins now (3) as Bowman and Bryon have top 5’s (1) in this same span.

Bowman has led just 4 laps outside of Las Vegas all season. He has no finish better than 12th in his last 6 with 3 of his last 4 results being 32nd or worse.

Byron has just 2 top 15’s over his last 8 starts on the year too.

Maybe Pocono though is what they need.

Bowman won here last year and was 7th a day later. Byron has 5 top 10’s in his last 7 at Pocono including 3 of which in the top 6. Larson was ninth but should have won the first race last year and runner-up in the second. He was fifth in 2020 and runner-up in June of 2019.

The thing is, Elliott is the hottest driver in the garage (4 straight top 2s) but he’s not had a finish better than 4th before at Pocono and 4 of his last 5 have seen him finish 12th or worse at that.

He’s hoping to hold off Ross Chastain (-67) and Blaney (-78) for the regular season crown. That comes with 15 additional playoff points. Chastain has emerged with 7 top 8’s in the last 8 points paying races including 6 straight.

Kyle Busch was once in that mix but once his string of 5 top 3’s in 7 weeks ended, it’s hit rock bottom. His last 5 finishes have been 30th, 21st, 29th, 20th and 12th respectively. Can he end this slide?

Busch has nine top 10 finishes in his last 10 Pocono including four of his last nine being wins at that. He was second and first respectively last year. However, if this doesn’t turn around this weekend, it may not next either. Toyota’s have largely struggled on road courses this season and Busch who’s in the midst of a fight for his future with JGR, may be backsliding into the final month of the regular season.

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