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Denny Hamlin headlines NASCAR drivers to watch at Pocono

The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Pocono Raceway for a Sunday afternoon race (2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Several drivers will enter the weekend with favorable odds to win, but Denny Hamlin tops the list of those to watch.

The veteran Cup driver is the defending winner at The Tricky Triangle. Last season's win was his seventh at the 2.5-mile track, a NASCAR record.

Hamlin also crossed the finish line first at Pocono in 2022 after leading 21 laps. However, NASCAR disqualified him and Kyle Busch after discovering an extra layer of unapproved tape on the noses of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas.

Disqualification aside, Hamlin has won two of the last five Cup races at Pocono and he has posted top-10 finishes in 22 of his 34 starts. His average finish at Pocono is 11.5.

"I feel like we have executed extremely well at Pocono," Hamlin said. "That and the racetrack certainly fits my driving style.

"I typically don't drive very deep into the corner; instead, I try to get good exit speeds. Pocono has such long straightaways, so you get rewarded for that exit speed."

The other driver disqualified after the 2022 race also bears watching this week as he tries to return to the playoffs. Busch is the winner of four Pocono races, all of which he has captured in the last seven seasons. Now he pursues his fifth while driving for Richard Childress Racing.

Busch's average finish is slightly higher than Hamlin's at 15.9, but he has finished top 10 in 50% of his starts at the 2.5-mile track. Busch has led 585 laps at Pocono in his Cup career.

Busch and Hamlin are two specific drivers to watch. The entire Toyota Racing also bears watching considering that the OEM has won eight of the last 11 races. This includes five straight Toyota wins between 2017-19.

Last season was a fitting example. Hamlin won while Tyler Reddick and Martin Truex Jr. finished second and third. Ty Gibbs and Christopher Bell also scored top-10 finishes. Bubba Wallace had the worst finish among Toyota drivers and he still crossed the line 11th overall.