Saturday, June 5, 2010

Nothing Tricky About Pocono's Triangle For The RCR Drivers This Week

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal
Of all the tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Pocono Raceway has been one of the more difficult tracks for Richard Childress’ drivers to get a handle on. For a total of 106 career starts among his drivers, the unique 2.5-mile triangular configuration has given the team fits. Even the late, great Dale Earnhardt was only able to muster two of his 76 career wins on the track.
The past struggles could be relieved with a victorious celebration this week as all three Childress drivers look to have what it takes to win Sunday’s Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500. Following Saturday’s final practice sessions, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, and Kevin Harvick all look dialed in for Pocono, more so than at any juncture of time collectively for the Richard Childress Racing stable at Pocono.
Each of the drivers finished within the top-12 in happy hour and each had a unique trait of their own during all three practice sessions to signify they’ll all compete for Sunday’s win.
Jeff Burton was fastest in happy hour and ran the most laps between the two Saturday practices. Points leader Kevin Harvick had the sixth and fifth fastest single lap times Saturday, but maybe more importantly had the quickest average speeds during the early session.
Clint Bowyer’s strength came from the initial set-up right off the hauler. In Friday’s first session, Bowyer was the fastest among all drivers while in race trim and had the quickest average lap times. The car was so car good in race trim that they called it quits after only 25 minutes of the scheduled 90 minute session and changed into qualifying trim. During qualifying, Bowyer ran the second-fastest overall which netted them a front row start.
It should come as little surprise that Bowyer had things so good from the start considering how well they ran the last time they raced at Pocono. Bowyer was leading the race with 10 laps to go and settled for third-place, a career high at Pocono and the best an RCR driver has done in over a decade.
The combination of Bowyer’s success last season along with the newly found horsepower and better handling cars from the final stages of 2009 have all three cars set-up perfect for Sunday.
Jeff Burton is at the point where he has been knocking on the door regularly for a win this season, but just can’t seem to break through. At one stage this season, Burton had led a race with 15 laps or less to go four straight times only to fall short. However, Pocono is a place he hasn't been confident at over the years. 
"Pocono is a track where I don't have a lot of laps led and any wins,” Burton said. “I've been in position a few times and it's a place where I think I overdrive it too much. I hope to be on the good side of things this weekend. We don't have good finishes there. It's probably one of my worst tracks as far as finishes are concerned."
For all of Burton’s modesty, he has finished in second-place twice, but that was while racing for Jack Roush. This looks to be one of his better opportunities to not only do well this week, but win. Beyond the great practice times, he’s bringing a great performing chassis as well -- the one that finished second at Dover a few weeks ago.
Kevin Harvick will be using a brand new chassis this week and while he has had some moderate past success at Pocono with two top-five finishes in 18 starts, he believes a key to the race will rest on how he does through the second turn.
"For me, the trickiest part of Pocono is the tunnel turn," said Harvick, "You have to carry so much speed into that turn that there is not much room for error. The tunnel turn is so much harder to get through now than it used to be. A few years ago there was a flat curb there and you could lean on it a little bit if you needed to. Now, there is a big curb there and if you hit it, you'll probably be forced up the race track, and the chances of hitting the wall are pretty high."
There are a couple of other drivers that the Childress crew are going to have to tangle with to scrap out a win, namely Denny Hamlin, but things have never looked as promising as they do this week heading into to Pocono.
After having all three drivers miss the Chase for the Championship in 2009 -- even though all three made it in 2008 -- the performance in 2010 has to be a relief. Bowyer currently sits in 13th position, a mere four points away from the 12th and final spot to get in with 13 races to. On the short term, a Pocono win would be a huge accomplishment and gain momentum for the entire organization heading down the stretch. Take your pick, any of three can do it this week.

Others to Watch:
Denny Hamlin is about as sick as they come on this track. He’s got a little Cale Yarborough in him mixed in with some Tim Richmond that make him the driver to ultimately beat this week. This guy came out as a rookie and swept both Pocono races in 2006. He won the last race run there giving him three wins already during his short career. The bad news for the rest of the field this week is that he is bringing a chassis that is two-for two this season -- the car has never lost! Even worse news for everyone is that he had the quickest average speeds during happy hour. Despite Childress' massive gains, Hamlin is clearly the odds on favorite to win this week.

Jimmie Johnson is one of six drivers to complete a season sweep at Pocono, but the 2004 wins remain his only wins there despite winning just about everywhere else during his four Cup championship seasons in a row. Had Johnson not been going through his current slump, his practice times would justify saying he’s the driver to beat this week. He was fastest in the first two sessions and second best in happy hour, which also included the second fastest average speeds.

Johnson’s practice times look very similar to last season’s two Pocono races when he was fastest in three of the five combined sessions ran, but finished only seventh and 13th. The doubt for Johnson this week rests squarely on his mind set. He’s not the same confident Johnson going into turns without fear. Right now, he’s got to be concerned about just finishing and doing things that will keep him on the track. Starting 26th this week, among the lesser drivers, on such a fast track will not ease his tension as he tries to move up front.

Kyle Busch is sitting on the pole this week and has also had one of his better combined practices this season, but something seems to be missing and it stems from his past history. Why hasn’t he had a top-five finish at Pocono since his first race ever on the track which was 10 races ago. It’s odd that he could have so much horse-power, be a teammate of Hamlin’s, and not done better. On the other side, he is surging to the top like no one else. All he has done for the last two months is finish well and compete for wins. Against Kyle’s wishes, he will not be flying around the country racing in the Nationwide series with the intention of being entirely focused on this week's Pocono race.

Tony Stewart had one of his best practice sessions in the last two months this weekend, a sign that maybe he is ready to return to his normal self. With 13 races left in the race to the chase and Stewart currently outside looking in, racing at the place he won at last year should be a comforting. He was so good in this race last season that won with a backup car starting from the rear. He has two Pocono wins with an average finish of 12.4 over his career.

Jeff Gordon has a career average finish of 10.0 that includes four wins and 24 top-fives in 34 career starts at Pocono. He didn’t do anything special during practices, but he can be expected to continue his regular trend of finishing well again. Last year, Gordon finished fourth and eighth in the two races, one of only three drivers to finish in the top-10 for each race in 2009.

Juan Pablo Montoya is one of the other drivers to finish both 2009 Pocono races in the top-10 and he’s carrying that momentum over into this years first crack at it. Montoya was outstanding in all three practices leading up to Sunday’s race. He had the second fastest laps in each the first two sessions and was sixth best during happy hour. On top of all the great single lap times, Montoya also has the quick average speeds to go along with it.

The only negative with Montoya this week is his crew, and I mean everyone from the crew chief, car chief, pit crew, and we can even throw in the custodian at the shop for good measure. Almost every week Montoya looks to have a car to beat and contend for the win, but can’t bust loose. He’s finished 34th or worse six times this season while also showing flashes of greatness with four top-5 finishes. Despite all the speculation on what the problem might be, he’s just too good on paper to ignore, once again, this week. With his type of excellence entering and exiting turns at maximum speeds, this week at Pocono could be the week the team finally puts it all together.

Also, Listen to today's archived Radio Show Of Roberts NASCAR Notes on Prime Sports Network 

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