|Toyota reduction of power could be to Carl Edwards' advantage|
The announcement alone was enough to have second thoughts on drivers like Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, who were all considered favorites to win Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400. Rain washed away Friday’s first scheduled practice session and qualifying, so Saturday was the first chance to actually see how much slower Toyota would be.
At the completion of both Saturday practices, it was apparent that the reduction of power is probably a little more extreme than the Gibbs and Waltrip organizations had bargained for. For the Gibbs trio, they were collectively slower than they had been on any other type of track this season that requires lost of horsepower, tracks that they had won five times on already.
Kenseth has never fared well at Pocono -- his last top-5 finish came in 2006, but he had experienced a pleasant change of scenery this season with Gibbs at places he didn’t typically run well at. This biggest change from his career record this season was winning for the first time at Darlington in early May. Before the TRD announcement, there was intrigue with Kenseth's possibilities -- he opened as a 5-to-1 co-favorite at LVH. But now after practice and knowledge of why he’s so slow, Kenseth isn’t so tempting this week.
The same goes for Denny Hamlin, who has the best overall Pocono record among the Gibbs’ drivers. He’s averaged a 10.7 finish and has won four times on the 2.5-mile tricky triangle, but could only muster the 13th fastest lap during happy hour after being 26th quickest in the early session. He was considered the favorite among the favorites coming in, but the speed charts don’t lie, especially with Hamlin who has never been accused of sandbagging in practice.
Kyle Busch was fastest among the Toyota in happy hour with the 10th fastest lap. He’s almost been a winner at Pocono several times, but two runner-up finishes still remain his best.
With those elite cars appearing to be down, that elevates several others to the top. Jimmie Johnson was already one of the co-favorites to win, but now he gets moved up even more because of not having as stiff of competition against him. He was fastest in the first practice and second during happy hour, where he also had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average among the four drivers that ran at least 10 straight. Johnson hasn’t won at Pocono since sweeping the 2004 season, but he still leads all active drivers with a 9th-place average finish.
The driver that was the most eye-popping on the speed charts was Carl Edwards, who second and third fastest, respectively, during Saturday’s practices. It was easily the fastest Edwards has looked during any practice session this season and a sign that we might be seeing a back-flip on Sunday. We’ve seen him do it twice before at Pocono, once as a rookie in 2005, and the other in 2008.
It’s apparent that Tony Stewart’s Dover in not only woke himself up, but also his entire organization. It’s like they flipped the switch on and all of sudden, they’re fast. Stewart doesn’t typically run fast in any practices, but was showing off some great speed Saturday, as was teammate Ryan Newman. Both drivers have been excellent at Pocono over their careers and each present great value this week.
In all likelihood, this 400 mile event should be just as exciting as the two were last season, and it could also provide an unlikely winner. Nine of the past 11 Pocono races have provided different winners. The combination of shifting, the new Gen-6 car and fairly new surface has all kinds of variables intertwined to make it one of the better races seen at Pocono, a place that has typically been labeled as boring over the years.
If Toyota is as slow as they look, we could see someone like Kurt Busch, who was fast once again during practice, take the checkers for the first time this season. The way he looks in practice, he might even be able to beat the Gibbs' drivers even if their power wasn't reduced.
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Driver Quotes from Saturday at Pocono
HOW WAS THE FIRST PRACTICE? “If we could just get the weepers out of there, we would be just fine. You hit them and it’s worse than I remember them being as far as how it makes the car jump around. I about lost the car twice running through water today.”
HOW IS THE CAR OVERALL? “It feels good. We’re still tuning on it, but it’s got a good start so far.”
ARE THE WEEPERS JUST IN TURN 3? “Somebody said they were in (Turn) 2. I didn’t have any problems in (Turn) 2, but I felt it in (Turn) 3 for sure.”
WHAT DO THE WEEPERS FEEL LIKE? “It’s like ice. It jumps the car around. You don’t see it. The hard part is you hit it and it makes the car jump out from underneath you. So, it’s a pretty hairy moment.”
ASIDE FROM THE WEEPERS, HOW IS THE TRACK NOW? HAS IT AGED? “It’s getting better. The good this is that it’s lost just enough grip to where it’s making it easier to lay rubber in the race track now and a lot easier to see it. The track is in good shape. You always fight water pumping-up through the track here, so other than that it’s perfect.”