This week it’s the scenic Pocono Mountains and the very "Tricky Triangle" of Pocono Raceway.
This will be the first of two Sprint Cup races held at one of the more popular East Coast vacation destinations. The unique thing at Pocono is that the 2.5 mile triangular track has a different degree of banking around all three of the turns.
In turn one, drivers can hug the 14 degrees of banking with minimal breaking and fly into turn two where a little more breaking is needed. They can run through rather quickly because of the angle of the turn. Turn three has only six degrees of banking and is tricky.
Whoever is able to master all three turns by getting in and out of the turns fastest, along with winning the drag race down each long straight, usually wins the race.
While Pocono’s layout is more unique than any other on the circuit, the cars running on it make it kind of boring. Pocono used to be called "the Superspeedway that runs like a road course," and it actually did.
When drivers would come into that tricky turn three, the good ones would down shift which helped keep the RPM’s up, while also helping break around the turn. As of 2005, downshifting was no longer part of the Pocono equation. NASCAR mandated a single gear ratio for all cars which took some of the fun and driver skill out of the race.
Now it’s strictly a horsepower track like Charlotte. We’ll base a lot of who we take this week on what happened in the final Charlotte practice session along with what teams currently have their acts together.
Kasey Kahne won last season from the pole after winning at Charlotte two weeks prior. Kahne led the most laps and was in control for almost the entire race. Fast-forward to 2009 and Kahne’s season is almost mirroring 2008. He didn’t win at Charlotte, although could have if the race had gone 600 miles, or even 400 before the rain hit. Up until Charlotte last season, Kahne had struggled just like this year.
Last week at Dover, Kahne debuted the new Dodge engine for the Petty team that has been run by Kurt Busch and the other Penske drivers. All indications show the engine was a success with a sixth place finish.
We’ve seen a huge change with Busch since Penske switched and the added horsepower should be a welcome sight at Pocono this week. There is some risk however, because of the high RPM’s that will be run at Pocono compared to Dover.
Brian Vickers was fast in Charlotte practice and easily had the best car in the 600. Last season he finished second to Kahne in this Pocono race and led the race with 15 laps to go. Vickers’ team has struggled on many of the smaller tracks, but they have things figured out on the horsepower tracks.
Vickers will be fast this week at pretty good 20-1 odds. It’s not a Brad Keselowski or David Reutimann at 65-1, who have already won this year, but still a good score.
New points leader Tony Stewart doesn’t look like he’s going away anytime soon. He was second at Dover giving him six top 5 finishes in 13 races. He won the non-points all-star race in Charlotte, but is still looking for his team’s first official win.
Stewart excelled on the old Pocono format because he was able to use some of his road course downshifting skills around turn three. He has one career win there and should make a late push in the final 40 laps.
Ironically, Stewart’s win at Pocono was in 2003, the same year his teammate Ryan Newman won there. Both cars are running excellent right now. Newman may be a bit more higher rated before this race than Stewart just because of how well they practiced in Charlotte.
The entire Hendrick Motorsports crew will be good this week beginning with last week’s winner Jimmie Johnson, who swept the 2004 season at Pocono the last year using the old gear ratio. He placed sixth and third in 2008.
Johnson is getting into his championship mode as he chases a fourth consecutive title this season. He could have had possibly six straight having been the best in the two previous years before finally winning in 2006.
Mark Martin has never won at Pocono in 44 starts, but does have six second place finishes – the most of any driver at a track without a win. Based on Charlotte, Martin will not be short of horsepower.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a new crew chief in Lance McGrew who will have a chassis set up perfectly for Junior this week. Dover was a work in progress, but they still came up with a quality 12th place finish.
The entire Hendrick organization is putting their collectve minds together to get Junior into the chase. Only 13 races remain until the field is set and I wouldn’t count them out yet. Look for a a top 10 run this week.
Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin will be the prized Gibbs entries this week. Hamlin swept the 2006 season and Kyle has been in contention several times on one of the few tracks he’s yet to win on.
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Micah Roberts