Pocono second time around still unique

Jul 19, 2005 5:27 AM

Over the years, Pocono has been one of the most enjoyable races because it was unique.

The big story last month at the Raceway was how the race would be affected with the drivers having a mandate that they not be allowed to shift coming in and out of the turns.

The track will always be different with its three turns. All have differing banking, getting flatter through each one. The difference maker in past races was always the driver. Not that horsepower didn’t help either, but setting up a pass in a road course format is an art. Pocono isn’t quite a road course, but it’s known as "the road course that drives like a superspeedway."

Turn 3, where most great passing action is done, was exciting as a fan to watch and probably even more fun for the driver making the pass. Drivers having difficulty shifting and downshifting were preyed upon like a weak gazelle in the Serengeti.

When the race unfolded, it turned out to be fairly uneventful. Every car used the same gear rules and not being able to shift. There is something to be said for crew chiefs being able to be creative with the rules, bending a bit here and tweaking some there. Hopefully, some of them come a bit more prepared this time around.

As for all the tire wear we saw the first time around, the track repaired the tunnel turn and replaced the asphalt rumble strips in the corners with concrete. Goodyear also recommended a higher tire pressure for left side tires as a possible solution to all the blowouts we saw.

The winner of that uneventful race was Carl Edwards, who paid off quite handsomely at over 25-1 depending on where you shopped. Brian Vickers led the most laps, while Michael Waltrip got out early to establish the biggest lead. Making a great appearance in this race was Joe Nemechek and Kyle Busch, both in Chevrolets. In all, Chevy placed seven cars in the top 10. Jimmy Johnson, the race favorite, finished sixth and failed to lead a lap.

Mark Martin had a strong showing for the Fords, but failed to add to his record six second place finishes and no wins. Edwards remained the strongest car. If there was any question about how stout this car the No. 99 team set up, just look at the blistering laps they posted at a Brickyard test session. They had the fastest lap at Indy, which holds betting value since Pocono is the closest match on the circuit. If you run well on one, it’s likely you’ll do well on another. On that note, keep an early eye on odds to win next week for the Brickyard 400. Anything over 15-1 on Edwards should be considered great value.

This week I’ll examine another Chevy, maybe one of the young Hendrick drivers, or maybe one of the older Hendrick drivers, or perhaps just a car with a Hendrick motor in it. That narrows it down to about eight cars.

It really is amazing how strong Edwards’ car got as the race went on. During the practice sessions, Edwards ran 11th fastest in the final session and 20th in the first. In the qualifying run, he finished 29th fastest. The two drivers looking strongest after practice and qualifying were Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, but both finished poorly in the race.

Over the years, because the races are so close to each other, the set ups are virtually identical for the successful teams and they run similar in both races. Sweeps don’t happen all the time at Pocono, but are somewhat common. Last season Jimmie Johnson joined the likes of Bobby Labonte (’99), Tim Richmond (’86), and Bill Elliott (’85) as Pocono sweepers. It would be surprising if Edwards came in and duplicated what he did last month. However, due to the no shifting rules, it changes everything. Also, there is likely to be some serious changes for the better from the clever crew chiefs of the top teams that did poorly.

Greg Biffle (8-1) heads the list of drivers not performing well last time. His 30th place finish makes it possible for odds in the 12-1 range. My memories of Biffle coming into this race are more from his dominant wins this season and two strong showings last year at Pocono, as opposed to the awful finish a month ago.

This will likely be the last time we see two races in a season at Pocono. Despite the changes with the gear shifting this season, I still enjoy the track. If the date goes to Staten Island (N.Y.), I wouldn’t oppose the switch.

Chicago and Kansas are more of what I would choose less of as a fan. I would really sacrifice a Pocono date for another Vegas race, despite its configuration. However, the speedway here is owned by the other side.

CHANGES for ’06

Jamie McMurray announced that he’ll be with Roush racing in 2007, even though he still has a year left on his contract with Chip Ganassi. Next year’s lineup for Ganassi is still up in the air with the exception of David Stremme. Sterling Marlin is out and Casey Mears still has some uncertainty for ’06.

Michael Waltrip was finally dropped for DEI, which means Martin Truex Jr will likely take over the No. 15 car. Waltrip may end up just in the Busch Series.

Rusty Wallace’s No. 2 Penske Dodge is still open with Mears as a possibility. Mark Martin, may go one more year and forego retirement if McMurray can’t get out of his deal with Ganassi.

Bobby Labonte, the driver who defined Joe Gibbs racing, may be gone. The other Gibbs car driven by Jason Leffler has been very disappointing. There could be two new rides available there.

Another opening is with the new Ray Evernham Dodge. Reed Sorenson has impressed as a driver. Our favorite from Vegas, Brendan Gaughan, will likely land in a Dodge for either Evernham or Ganassi.

Brendan Gaughan, the young driver we continue to root for in Las Vegas to get a ride, will likely land in a Dodge for either Evernham or Ganassi. Over the next two weeks, everything will likely become clearer. No one wants to be left out with an open ride with all the top prospects signed, sealed, and delivered.

TOP 5 at POCONO

1. #97 Kurt Busch 8-1

2. #5 Kyle Busch 20-1

3. #48 Jimmie Johnson 8-1

4. #25 Jeff Gordon 10-1

5. #25 Brian Vickers 25-1