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Race Day: They’ve Taken The Pokey Out Of Pocono

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 10 2012

Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson will attempt to figure out the new, quicker Pocono Raceway this afternoon. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

Today’s Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway should get fans and competitors back to their homes and routines a lot quick than in years past. Like, for the first time in memory, while they’re still young.

Because not only are this year’s Cup stops at Pocono being mercifully trimmed back by 100 miles, it appears that the new asphalt at the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania triangle is significantly increasing speeds of the race cars.

During three days of testing, practice and qualifying, the speeds were brow-raising fast. So fast that the track record was smashed by 7 mph by pole-winner Joey Logano. In all, 36 drivers posted qualifying speeds that were faster than the track record, which was set by Kasey Kahne eight years ago.

The question that will be answered this afternoon concerns how the super-quickened surface will affect the racing in the Pocono 400.

Here is what several drivers had to say about that:

Dale Earnhardt Jr, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said, “The biggest unknown is how we’ll be able pass and how bad is the air going to be behind people. I’m afraid that we won’t be able to pass and we won’t be able to run-up on slower cars. It’s a one-groove race track and very aero-

Joey Logano will start today's race from the pole. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

dependent and smooth and flat.”

Kasey Kahne, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet said, “Well, just how much the track moves around (is unknown). To me, if it opens up enough on entry to where you can actually go in beside a car and not just have to slow way down if you’re on the outside of a car, I think that’s an unknown. I think as the race goes that will definitely get better.”

Carl Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing Ford: “I think it’s really hard to determine what makes this race track faster right now. I don’t know if being a little bit warmer makes it faster. I thought as we went on and that speedy dry and the groove got cleaned off that people would go a lot faster, so it’s a surprise to me. I don’t really understand it. I do think there’s a mental aspect to it too. If you’re sitting there watching the broadcast and you see how slick it is and how much trouble people are having, and you have to hit your marks perfectly on this track.”

Trivia time

Which driver in today’s field got his first Cup victory at Pocono?

The keys

The key to success at Pocono today come courtesy of Howard Comstock of SRT Motorsports Engineering:

Fuel Economy: “Yes the track is fast, incredibly fast, approaching 12 miles per hour faster than it was last year. That’s a big deal and it makes a big difference. I think a couple of the unknowns are things that teams are going to have to focus on. One is with the increase in speed, what has that done to the fuel economy? We all know that this is a very important place for fuel economy. You cannot risk running out on the backstretch on a flat track or you’ll never get back to the pits. So the speed is great but how bad does that hurt fuel economy? We’re in the throttle so long around the track now that it’s using fuel to get the kind of speeds that we’re seeing. I think the teams are going to have to be very careful about fuel economy. They’re going to have to be conservative for at least the first stop and I think they’re going to have to watch it all day.”

Tires: “During all the testing and practice that we saw this week, the tires actually get better the longer you run ‘em but with the format that they run here at Pocono now, all of our practice is done on Friday. You don’t get your race tires until practice is over. The teams proved that scuffs work better than stickers but all the teams are going to be forced to put stickers on during the race. They’re going to have to solve

Fans behind bars at Pocono. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

the mystery of how to do you get stickers up to speed and what’s going to be the consequences of putting stickers on a green flag pit stop. It’s going to be tricky.

“If there are some quick cautions, you might see some teams putting older tires back on but the amount of track position you lose here would be nearly impossible to make up. If you gave up a top-five position to run that strategy and ended up 25th, you couldn’t race back 20 positions. I think you’re going to see more road course strategy here than maybe we have in the past where, if teams are going to make green flag stops, as long as you’re close to the front of the field you can stop, get your service and still be on the lead lap. I think for fuel economy and road course strategy reasons, you might see more teams stopping sooner rather than later.

“I would think that four tire stops would be an endangered species. These tires last and they’re better scuffed than they are new so why would you put on newer, slower tires except for wear reasons (smiles)? Eventually, you’ve got to consider wear but if the wear looks good and the tires are just as fast old, why put on something that’s newer and slower?”

Second Groove: “I think it’ll get worked in, unless we see rain. Then, that’s going to be a problem. If there’s rain, it’s just going to slow the process of working in that second groove. I think you’ll see a lot of one-groove racing for a long time if we get considerable rain. And the added uncertainly is this is 400 miles now instead of 500, so you don’t get that last 100 miles to where that second groove is nicely worked in. You’re going to have to get your business done early tomorrow.”

The 400 Mile Factor: “To me, it’s all about strategy. It’s not about durability. I like the change to the 400-mile format because I think you will get better racing packed into 400 miles. In a 500-mile format teams had to ride, had to just log laps for a long time in this race waiting to get to a milestone so they could work some strategy. And now that that’s gone, I think you’re going to get a better race in 400 miles than you did in 500.”

Fast facts

The track: Pocono Raceway

Matt Kenseth starts the race today second in points – one point behind teammate Greg Biffle. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Christa L Thomas)

Location: Long Pond, Pa.

Configuration: 2.5-mile triangle

Banking: 14 degrees in Turn 1, 8 degrees in Turn 2, 6 degrees in Turn 3

First race: Purolator 500, Aug. 4, 1974

First race pole-sitter: Buddy Baker

First race winner: Richard Petty

Most wins: 5, by Jeff Gordon and Bill Elliott

Most poles: 5, by Bill Elliott and Ken Schrader

Most top-fives: 19, by Mark Martin

Today’s race: The Pocono 400

Today’s pole-sitter: Joey Logano

Last year’s pole-sitter: Kurt Busch

Last year’s race winner: Jeff Gordon

Narrowest margin of victory: 0.126 seconds

First turn

Turn 1 at Pocono has always been brutal. It sits at the end of the long, 3,740-foot straight way which generates speeds well above 200 mph. The turn itself is sharp but has banking. Is it the toughest of the three turns?

Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer talked about Turn1 at the “new” Pocono track.

“You definitely make sure the brakes are in working condition before you go out,” Bowyer said. “You’re sailing it off in there at a pretty good clip. (Turn) 1 has some banking to it and within that the car takes some load and feels secure.

“Getting into (Turn) 3 actually for me – it’s flat, you’re carrying a lot of speed over there and the car can really step out from underneath of you and there’s no banking to hold you if it ever did slip. If you ever get up out of the groove and get in the dirty part of the track, you’re going to be in trouble in a hurry. I would say, in my opinion, if there’s some cautions on Sunday I would think that it would be in Turn 3 – cars trying to get underneath each other loose, getting up into the dirty part of the track and getting somebody in trouble. There’s no grip patch in turn three anymore. No cushion.”


Trivia answer

Joey Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin got his first Sprint Cup at Pocono. It came in June of 2006.

Up next

Michigan International Speedway, which has also been repaved. Kurt Busch won the pole there last year and Denny Hamlin the race.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 10 2012
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