New Pocono still same ol' Pocono
LONG POND, Pa. -- After three days of testing and a day of practice, the Sprint Cup drivers who will contest Sunday's Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway are in near-unanimous agreement on most points.
They newly repaved track is smooth and fast and the race being shortened by 100 miles won't change strategy much at this three-turn triangle. Where they differ is whether the racing at the venerable track will be better than in the past.
They expect it to be better someday when the track weathers in, but what about Sunday?
"They've done a fantastic job, and I think it's going to be a good race," points leader Greg Biffle said. "I think it'll bring some life back to the racetrack. It's definitely going to be exciting, and I think all of the drivers enjoy the surface so far.
"The biggest thing we're worried about is it being single-lane racing for a little bit. That makes it more challenging to pass, of course, which could create some more excitement, but once this racetrack gets a few races on it, it's going to be really good."
So if single-lane racing is the order of the day Sunday, how will drivers pass each other?
"It's going to be hard to bump people out of the way because we're going so fast," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think even the slightest bump would wreck a car.
" You're going to see a lot of people taking advantage of guys and going three-wide, maybe four-wide, heading into the Tunnel Turn [Turn 2]. You'll see a lot of that, I bet. But anytime a couple of guys get caught up racing each other or somebody has the slightest of runs on them, they're going to try to go three-wide and force an issue into the next corner, because general passing as we know it is going to be real challenging until the surface widens up and the track ages a little bit."
Most drivers addressed the track-aging issue. Repaving a track eventually becomes a necessity, and drivers -- and fans -- understand that. But most wish the tracks could stay the same, because repaving tracks has often changed the style of racing, at least as it appears on television.
Among the tracks recently repaved, Talladega and Daytona have seen racing largely return to the way it was, albeit after NASCAR tweaked the rules enough to make pack or "freight train" racing the fastest way around the track again.
Then there's Bristol, which is undergoing a repaving and tweaking to try to make racing there return to the way it was before a repaving and change in banking in 2007. While most of the drivers lauded the new Bristol, many fans decried it is as a disaster -- or worse.
Martin Truex Jr. said that what happened at Bristol shouldn't be an issue at Pocono.
"I think probably the coolest part that I've noticed since we came here is it's still Pocono," he said. "It still has the same tendencies. They did a good job of paving it but keeping the character in it Pocono's had. Of course, it's a little bit smoother, but it still has some bumps in it and some character to it and all the things that you remember about Pocono and the challenges of Pocono are still the same, so I think that's a great thing."
Harkening back to Talladega and Daytona, one thing that may come into play Sunday is drafting.
With speeds expected to hit as high as 210 mph on the frontstretch, pulling up tight to a car in front may provide a big aerodynamic advantage.
It's uncoupling from your draft partner heading into the turns -- particularly Turn 2 -- that should put the tricky in the track's "Tricky Triangle" nickname.
And all that may play right into Earnhardt's hands, as he's still considered one of the best drafters in NASCAR. So how does he think it will work?
"Absolutely, the draft is effective at racetracks other than Talladega and Daytona," he said. "It's just really very slight [at other tracks]. The track is quick enough. I think it will definitely be something people will utilize to their advantage on the front straightaway, maybe even other parts of the racetrack, but most definitely in the front straightaway."
Earnhardt continued the thought and added some trepidation to go with it.
"I think you could push in a straight line without any problem," he said. "That pretty much works everywhere. Just in the corners, I don't want anybody running in the back of me in the Tunnel Turn trying to get by me.
"If they want to get by me that bad, I will let them have it."
Truex agreed drafting will come into play but said the speeds cars are maintaining in the corners are a big change from the past.
"The straightaway speeds are not a lot faster than what they were -- obviously, it's the same size racetrack -- but the corner speeds are up."
And despite speeds being up, Jeff Gordon said he doesn't expect any changes from NASCAR to slow things down, because it's likely too late to do it now.
He does particularly like the redone pit road, along with the rest of the renovations.
"It's a nice, wide pit road," the four-time champion said. "They moved that one guardrail back. We won't really know until we've run a race here how that factors in. It looks nice. I think they did a great job with the repave.
"The track feels really good. I haven't heard a single complaint."