NASCAR throws caution
to the wind at Pocono

Jul 29, 2004 1:14 AM

Last month we visited Pocono Raceway for the first of their two annual Nextel Cup races. That was the race where Jeremy Mayfield was setting Jimmie Johnson up for the perfect winning pass, just like he did to the late great Dale Earnhardt in 2000.

Then the caution flag came out with three laps remaining. The race finished under caution with Johnson winning. Who knows if Mayfield would have been able to make a successful pass, but it sure would have been nice to actually see for ourselves instead of having the most critical portion of the race come to an abrupt end.

Well, give credit to NASCAR. They listened to their fans and made an immediate change in the rules so it won’t happen again. The green-white flag finishes will definitely be a mad scramble by the drivers fighting for all positions. The previous rule was there for the safety of the drivers. For the most part, the drivers are happy for the fans.

Johnson (7-1) hasn’t won since, a span of five races, but still has the points lead along with three wins. In each of his first two full seasons of Nextel Cup racing, Johnson has swept races (Dover in 2002, New Hampshire last year). The last driver to sweep a Pocono season was Bobby Labonte in ’99. Before that, sweeps were done by the late Tim Richmond (’86), Bill Elliott (’85) and Bobby Allison (’82).

With Indy coming up next week, you’ll be able to use the two Pocono races as a barometer to how the cars should perform. The two tracks are unique to themselves because of their long straights and tight turns. Pocono Raceway is called "the Superspeedway that drives like a road course."

The description is very appropriate because it gives racing fans the best of both worlds. We get to see drivers maneuver around turn three like a road course, down shifting and braking, and then mash the pedal for a drag race down the front stretch. Indy is very similar except that all its turns are asymmetrical. Pocono’s vary, getting tighter and flatter through each of the three turns. 

The winners have been similar in most instances at each track. The lone exception was last year when Brickyard winner, Kevin Harvick (15-1) finished outside the Top 10 at Pocono. Every other Brickyard 400 winner has won at Pocono.

Obviously, the top drivers in points are the ones to look at first. Jeremy Mayfield (10-1), 11th in the points race, is worth a shot. Mayfield needs to make up some ground on the 10th slot in the title chase. Ryan Newman occupies 10th by 106 points.

Mayfield has gained two of his three career wins at Pocono. Mayfield could have won the earlier race at Pocono this year, finishing second.

Mark Martin (18-1) has never won at Pocono but does have five runnerup finishes. He blew an engine early in the race last month, but all indications are that the gremlins have been worked out from their new engine program. Prior to the race, Martin was considered one of the favorites around the garage because of his great Happy Hour performances. Look for him to contend.

Kurt Busch (10-1) snagged his second win of the season last week at New Hampshire. Last month at Pocono, Busch rallied from a poor starting spot to finish fifth. Last year, he was second to Newman. Look for him to join the elite and crowded multi-race winners club.

Jeff Gordon (8-1) looks almost like the "Evernham Gordon" so many in the stands hated simply because he greedily won just about every race entered. Gordon finished fourth at Pocono last month giving him 11 Top 5 finishes in 23 career starts. He has three career wins there, but none since ’98 when Ray Evernham was running the show. Since they split up, Evernham actually has more wins at Pocono than Gordon. Bill Elliott won for Ray two years ago.

The Labontes were terrific last time they visited Pocono. Bobby was third and Terry seventh. Both quietly find their way in the Top 10. Bobby gets the least press of all the top drivers and probably doesn’t mind. Between the brothers, they’ve got five wins. Both should do well in individual matchups.

Ryan Newman (9-1) had a great run last week, but faltered in last month’s Pocono race thanks to an accident. Coming into that race, Newman had three straight Top 5 finishes and a win.

Tony Stewart (6-1) finished no worse than seventh in 8 of 11 Pocono starts. He won last year and looks to be in prime position for a second drivers title.

Dale Jarrett (20-1) has been great over the last 18 Pocono races, notching 13 Top 5 finishes and three wins. Jarrett was having a great run last month when his engine blew with five laps remaining. After a strong run last week, Jarrett finds himself with a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. He’s only 21 points behind Mayfield.

Others to watch: Casey Mears (30-1), Sterling Marlin (25-1), Brian Vickers (35-1), and Kasey Kahne (15-1).

Brickyard testing done

You can get a head start on next week’s handicapping of the Brickyard 400 by checking out the practice times from the several test sessions teams ran at the fabled grounds over the last four weeks.

Jeff Green tested fastest, which came as somewhat a shock since the famed No. 43 Dodge hasn’t been the best at anything except bad finishes over the last few years. Not coincidentally, Green had his best run of the season at Pocono in June. Because of the similarities between Pocono and Indy, look for the Petty team to flex some newly found muscle this weekend.

Others testing well and offering very good prices include Brian Vickers, Sterling Marlin, Kenny Wallace, Mark Martin, and former Indy winner Bill Elliott. The entire Evernham stable of Dodge drivers will be very fast next week.

Champs test at LVMS

Las Vegas race fans can get a free preview of the Champ Car World Series next month.

The Champ Cars will run the second half of the double header with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series on Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Champs hold an open test session for all teams Aug. 18, from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The grandstands will be open to spectators at no charge. The speeds reached by these cars will be well over the 215 mph mark. Nextel Cup cars run around 170 at LVMS.

Big Apple 500?

International Speedway Corp., the country’s largest motor sports raceway operator, signed a deal last week to buy more than 600 acres of land on Staten Island, N.Y., which would be the first NASCAR track in America’s largest market.

The plan is scheduled to be completed by 2008 and ready for racing action in 2009. The best thing about the entire plan is that the layout is said to be a three-quarter mile track seating 80,000 people. This would finally break the trend of opening cookie cutter tracks if it holds true.

ISC was quick to point out that NASCAR hasn’t given any guarantee of getting a Cup race date. When this happens, it will truly be a sign that NASCAR has captured America’s attention.