Thursday, June 4, 2009

Pocono Preview

Pocono Preview
by Micah Roberts

It’s time to take a stroll through the scenic Pocono Mountains as we get ready for this weeks race on the “Tricky Triangle” of Pocono Raceway. This will be the first of two races held at one of the more popular East coast vacation destinations. The unique thing about Pocono, other than being surrounded by such beauty, 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 kind of hug the 14 degrees of banking with minimal breaking and fly through on their way to turn two where a little more breaking is needed because of only degrees of banking, but they can run through rather quickly because of the angle of the turn, which is vastly different from the other two. In turn three, there is only six degrees of banking and the turn is as tricky as any of the three. 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. I only say that because I remember how they used to run at Pocono. It 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 out of the race because it tool some of the driver skill out of the equation.

Now the race is strictly a horsepower track and to better get a feel who the top candidates to win this week, we can look at Charlotte from two weeks ago, but not necessarily the race results. Because the race was rain shortened, the final results don’t reflect who was actually the best car. We’ll base a lot of who we take this on what happened in the final Charlotte practice session along with what teams currently have their acts together.

Kasey Kahne won this race 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-foward to 2009 and Kahne’s season is almost mirroring 2008. He didn’t win at Charlotte, although he had a good enough to had it went 600 miles, or even 400 for that matter. 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 6th place finish at Dover. 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 in the race before it rained. He easily had the best car that day on the long runs and it reflected that way in practice that saw him run the 2nd most laps with great average speed times. Last season he finished 2nd 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 there is no doubt that they have things figured out on the horsepower tracks. They’ll be fast this week and he should be able to run near the top this week.

Tony Stewart is now your new points leader and it doesn’t look like he’s going away anytime soon. He came in with another 2nd place finish last week at Dover giving him six top 5 finishes in 13 races this season. He won the non-points all-star race in Charlotte, but is still looking for his teams first official win. Stewart was one of the drivers who excelled on the old format because he was able to use some of his road course downshifting skills around turn three. He has one win on the track and if he’s to win this week, it’ll likely be in the same fashion as all his other hard charges this year that will see him come from no where in the last 40 laps and push for the win. By the way, Stewart is the first car owner/driver to leads the season points since Alan Kulwicki in 1992.

Ironically, the last year Stewart won at Pocono was the last year his teammate Ryan Newman won there. 2003 was a long time ago, but it’s come full circle again as 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. They ran the most laps of the final practice session and had the best average times over everyone. They didn’t run as well early on in the Coca-Cola as Vickers did, but it may have been that the car was set up optimally for the sun going down. Newman has climbed all the way to 5th in the standings.

The entire Hendrick Motorsports crew will be good this week beginning with last weeks winner, Jimmie Johnson. A Hendrick driver has won four of the last five races up to this point after getting zero in the first eight races of the season.

Johnson swept the 2004 season at Pocono, the last year using the old gear ratio and last season finished 6th and 3rd. This is about the time of year when Johnson kicks it into overdrive and gets into his Championship mode. He’s looking for his 4th consecutive title this season, and what could have been possibly 6 straight because he was 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 2nd place finishes giving him the distinction of having the most 2nd places at a track without a win. Based on how they looked at Charlotte coming into that race, that could change this week. Martin will not be short of horsepower by any means.

Dale Earnhardt Jr has a new crew chief in Lance McGrew who will have a chassis set up perfectly for Junior this week. Getting the car prepared amid the chief change last week was a work in progress last week at Dover, 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 and having cars capable of getting him there. Only 13 races remain until the field is set for the chase and I wouldn’t count them out yet. Look for a good run this week, maybe not a win just yet, but a top 10.

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 to get a win for the first time on one of the few tracks he’s yet to win on yet.

TOP 5 Finish Prediction”
1) #83 Brian Vickers (20/1)
2) #5 Mark Martin (12/1)
3) #9 Kasey Kahne (18/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (6/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)

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