Separating contenders, pretenders
LONG POND, Pa. -- There was little agreement among drivers on many things at Pocono Raceway Friday, until the subject came around about what to expect in Sunday's Good Sam RV Insurance 500 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The race should be fast. Shifting gears will again play an important role in the race, especially from a car's durability standpoint. Tire wear won't be an issue. Fuel mileage very likely will be an issue. Drivers not feeling secure they will make the Chase are having to think about race-day strategy even more than before. Most of all, track position is going to be the key to winning.
OK, so that sounds like any race this season. Not really, because the "Tricky Triangle" -- as this mammoth 2.5-mile, three-turn track is nicknamed -- has only one good spot to make a pass with the current car configuration. That means strategy to get out front late will see different drivers and crew chiefs take gambles that suit their circumstances.
"There are just certain things you can't get around," said five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, whose spot in the Chase appears secure sitting in second place and with a win under his belt. "The flat corners don't necessarily promote side-by-side racing.
"Turn 1 is your one opportunity for it and if it doesn't happen, you've got to wait 55 or 56 seconds to try it again. There are certain things we just can't overcome. Track position is going to be very, very important once again. I think you'll see a very similar race to what we saw in the spring."
Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, won the race here June 12 in a good battle that fizzled late as he pulled away in clean air to earn an easy victory.
For drivers such as Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is currently 10th in the standings and without a win, getting near the front for a good points day may be the goal, and if a win comes, it comes.
"Yeah, I feel the same way [as Johnson]," Earnhardt said. "I think the track is a lot of fun to race on, but it's real challenging to pass. And with the shifting, it has sort of made it more difficult to pass. I think track position is going to be real important, trying to be out front or do whatever you've got to do to come out of that last pit stop in the top five somewhere around there."
NASCAR mandated new gear ratios for the June race and they will be in effect Sunday. The new gearing made a clear difference for some drivers. Getting around the track in the fastest possible way took more work than before, as drivers had to shift more often and had to learn the right spots on the track to make the best shift.
Some drivers adapted to it better than others.
"We were real comfortable with it the last time we were here and things went real well for us with it," said Kyle Busch, who finished third here in June, a career-high at Pocono. "We seemed like we could gain a little bit of time in the areas we were shifting. On restarts, you do a couple things different than you did here in the past."
So if Busch, currently third in points and with three victories, was one of those drivers on the Chase bubble, what would he do?
"I think [the] biggest strategy is to get a solid finish," he said. "I don't think you can go for the win. If you can go for the win and get it, obviously you kind of lock yourself in, but if you go for the win and miss it and give yourself a 30th-place finish, then you're going to be way too far out [of Chase contention].
"I think being conservative is a lot better choice than going too far over the edge."
But Tony Stewart, sitting ninth in points and without a win, said he really doesn't think about it during the race.
"You still just have to take it a week at a time," Stewart said. "You really don't think about it during the race. I don't think about it from the driver's side, I don't know if Darian [Grubb, crew chief] thinks about it. From our side every week, just trying to win the race and not really worry about the points side of it.
"There is nothing you can do, you just have to go out and get as many points as you can and that's the same thing you do to try to win the race each week, so it just makes it easy."
But Pocono is never easy, and in a season that has seen four first-time winners in the Sprint Cup Series, it's unlikely Pocono will produce a fifth on Sunday.
There haven't been really any fluke winners at Pocono over the years, and many of the drivers who have won here have done so multiple times.
Gordon is one of those multiple Pocono winners, having gone to Victory Lane here five times, but he admits the season sweep is a challenge, and there's a good reason for that.
"Well, the conditions [make it harder to sweep]; even though it's a short period of time that goes by [between the two Pocono race dates], it just seems like the track conditions are quite a bit different when we come here the second time. The first time usually it's a little cooler and I don't know what it is, but the track just seems to have a little more grip.
"When we come the second time we just really struggle to get the grip in the car. We'll find out. So far, it hasn't been really super-hot here today or anything. So far, it seems like the conditions are fairly similar to what we had the last time."
Right behind Gordon among active drivers with wins at Pocono is Denny Hamlin, with four. He has the added drama of being 11th in the standings but currently in a wild-card spot to make the Chase, thanks to his win earlier this season at Michigan. But it is leading to some tense weeks leading up to the Chase.
"The thing realistically is that David Ragan and Paul Menard [both with wins but further down the standings] and those guys -- they would have to leap frog over us in points to knock us out of the wild-card unless they win another race. We are in a danger zone. We don't want to be where we're at, but we know we're very capable of winning this race, the next race, the next race and the one after that."
That's the attitude every driver will want to take into Sunday.
K. Lee Davis is a motorsports editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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