by M Roberts
The Friday practice session at Pocono was wiped out along with qualifying, so Saturday’s two practice sessions became pivotal for all the teams to get their cars set up right for Sunday’s race. The early session was somewhat of a mini-test session for most teams tinkering and getting ready for the final set up in happy hour.
The happy hour session was the more pivotal of the two Saturday practices and is very telling to who will be fastest in Sunday’s race. Over the last few seasons, Pocono racing has changed dramatically because of the single gear ratio mandate in 2005. It’s a drag race more than ever, and the happy hour times may be more of a barometer to who will well at Pocono than any other track.
Last season in this race is the perfect example of how telling happy hour is. Seven of the top 10 in happy hour times finished in the top 10 on race day. Looking at the list of leaders based on single lap times and average times, it looks like the trend will continue Sunday.
Below is a list of the top rated cars based on those times along with a mix of 2009 history and past Pocono history.
Denny Hamlin brought a new car to Pocono hat will make it’s first start and after running a lot of laps in the first practice session and getting the 4th fastest lap, they laid down the fastest lap of happy hour along with the 2nd fastest average time in their 29 laps run, which was the second most run of the session. This car may not be as good as the one he swept Pocono with in 2006, as if any could be, but they are sitting on a fast car and should be favored to win Sunday.
Ryan Newman ran the 2nd fastest lap in both practice sessions and came up with the best average times in happy hour. Newman should be able to maintain those top speeds for the long runs, likely to be around 30 laps which s the pit window. His last success at Pocono came in 2007 with a 2nd and 7th, and his last win there came in 2003.
Mark Martin is driving the chassis that won at Phoenix this year. He wasn’t overly impressive in either of his practice runs that saw him finish with the 12th and 15th fastest laps in each session. Last season, Martin finished 10th in this race after having the fourth fastest happy hour time. Martin’s has six 2nd place finishes at Pocono, the most seconds by any driver at one track without winning a race there.
Jimmie Johnson is running the same chassis that finished 13th in the All-Star race, which isn’t indicative of the true quality of the ride because he got punted. He was fastest in the first session, and came away with the 5th fastest lap in happy hour, but even better was his average times in the final practice which was third fastest against all drivers that ran at least 20 laps. Johnson was good last season with a 3rd and 6th at Pocono, his best combined Pocono success since sweeping the 2004 season.
Kurt Busch was 10th fastest in happy hour, but it may not be the best his car has as they were thrown off a bit from not having a Friday practice session.
"The biggest thing that we'll be behind on is just qualifying practice for the next time that we come here in August, Busch said. The other thing is that we usually like to take the first half-hour at every race track that we go to this year and use it as a test session and try some off-the-wall things that we learned from last week or that we've wanted to try, just off-the-wall (stuff).
We're behind on just getting a few items off of our check list; we'll try those this morning."
Busch is a two time winner at Pocono, but appeared to happy with just getting a top 10 finish in interviews he did. Don’t like the lack of confidence and it didn’t sound like he was sand-bagging.
Jamie McMurray ran the 8th fastest lap overall in happy hour while running 25 laps, but his average times were just below 162 mph. Despite searching for better handling, McMurray is happy about the horsepower his car is producing.
"We have to make it drive better, McMurray said. It has good speed, but it's really, really loose, and we're going to have to get it tightened up in order to make it good for a long distance."
Greg Biffle was 3rd fastest in happy hour with the fourth best average times. Despite having some pretty fast cars over the last four seasons, it really hasn’t translated to Pocono success. In twelve starts, Biffle only has two top 10 finishes.
Biffle also believes the speeds from happy hour are very relevant to race day based on the conditions.
"A lot of it -- unless the track changes dramatically, but we think the track is going to be pretty similar tomorrow, maybe a little slicker than it is now, Biffle said. So, I really feel like these times are really going to translate over to tomorrow. And, then guys are pretty happy with the lap times -- I haven't had a chance to look at them, but they think we have a top-five car, and that's good for us here. The car’s handling decent. We'll look and see if we can improve it at all for tomorrow, and be ready to go."
Tony Stewart had a great first practice session, but has to go with a back up because he “ripped his whole nose” off the car. In happy hour, Stewart’s back up was almost as good as the primary car. He finished with the 6th fastest time and very good average speeds. Despite coming from the rear, Stewart should still be in contention near the end of the race as he seems to do every week. He finished 2nd in his last race at Pocono and his last win on the track was in 2003.
Best of the Rest
A.J. Allmendinger laid down a great lap in happy hour with the 9th fastest and had great average speeds in the session with 16 laps run.
Carl Edwards had an encouraging happy hour with average times, but is missing something on single lap runs. Big turnaround from 2008 that saw him be fastest overall in happy hour.
Clint Bowyer ran the 4th fast lap of happy hour with moderate average times. He has three top 10 finishes in his last four starts.
Matt Kenseth looks to be in the same boat as Kurt Busch with times. They were almost identical in happy hour average speeds and single lap speeds. Looks like a possible top 10 car.
Kyle Busch doesn’t look well at all, at least by the standards he has set for himself in practice. He was 7th fastest overall in practice, but only good on a single lap, not good on long runs.
Jeff Gordon will be starting from the front and the clean air should be good early for him. He was good in the first practice, but mediocre in happy hour. Gordon is a driver who always seems to defy what his practice times say. He was 17th fastest in happy hour, and 5th in practice one.
Top Rated Drivers after all Pocono Practice Sessions
1) #39 Ryan Newman
2) #11 Denny Hamlin
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson
4) #16 Greg Biffle
5) #14 Tony Stewart