Will a faster Pocono be a better one?
LONG POND, Pa. -- It was a foregone conclusion the track record lap speed for stock cars was going to fall during qualifying for Sunday's Pocono 400; the question was by how much.
Joey Logano put his name in the record book -- for now -- with a 50.112-second lap at 179.598 mph average Saturday, eclipsing the mark of 172.553 posted by Kasey Kahne in 2004. In all, 36 drivers surpassed Kahne's old record in qualifying.
Yes, the repaved Pocono Raceway is bad fast, and that is good.
"It's fun," said Mark Martin, who qualified sixth. "I'm still shaking, but it's fun."
Qualifying ended up being a bit of an adventure for many. There was still some track-drying agent in Turn 1 from an accident during ARCA Series practice Friday, and cloudy conditions kept the track cooler than expected. Logano was happy -- and surprised he's the pole-sitter and new record-holder.
"The track was really dirty . They just couldn't get the track clean enough," he said. "I went down into [Turn] 1 and barreled in there and got loose and went up the race track, so I feel like a left of a couple of tenths [of a second] out there.
" Either way, we have a really fast car that is capable of winning this thing."
Carl Edwards, who qualified second and will start outside Logano on the front row, said he was surprised qualifying speeds weren't faster than they were, but changing track conditions made a difference Saturday.
"I think it's really hard to determine what makes this track faster right now," he said. "I don't know if it being a little warmer makes it faster. I thought as we went on [through qualifying] and that speedy dry and the groove got cleaned off that people would go a lot faster, so it's a surprise to me.
" I do think there's a mental aspect to it, too. You're sitting there watching the broadcast and you see how slick it is and how much trouble people are having, and you have to hit your marks perfectly on this track."
But a faster track for Sunday, along with a race shortened to 400 miles, adds a new dimension to racing at this triangular-shaped 2.5-mile behemoth.
How will the cars do on fuel runs? More speed means more consumption. And how soon will teams get into the pit-stop strategy that always comes into play here? Pit for tires late, or stick with old ones?
During Friday's practice sessions, cars were going faster on their "scuff" tires than they were on the "sticker" ones.
Scuffs are tires that have been on a car at least once, with the contact surface of the new tire scrubbed off. The tires have also heated up and then cooled, making the rubber more durable. Sticker tires are simply new ones straight off the delivery truck.
"The teams proved that scuffs work better than stickers [in practice], but all the teams are going to be forced to put stickers on during the race," said Howard Comstock of SRT Motorsports Engineering and Dodge. "They're going to have to solve the mystery of how do you get stickers up to speed and what's going to be the consequences of putting stickers on on a green-flag pit stop? It's going to be tricky."
Talking about tires may not be the sexiest topic of conversation on a weekend when Kurt Busch is missing the race because of a NASCAR suspension, Jeff Gordon is trying to re-kindle some old Pocono magic so he can get back in Chase contention, Edwards is looking for his first win of the season, and the improving Logano looks poised to earn the second Sprint Cup victory of his career soon.
But with a new race surface, tires and tire-management -- along with the aforementioned fuel mileage -- are likely to be the reasons the race is won or lost. And as ESPN analyst Rusty Wallace told me once when I told him he talked about tires a lot during our weekly chats about his column, "It's always about tires. Always."
Points leader Greg Biffle said the length of this race still makes it set up more like a road race than an oval one.
"It's definitely going to be about track position, like a road-course race," Biffle said Friday. "You're going to want to get inside your [end of the race fuel-mileage] window and stay out for track position, because new tires aren't going to go anywhere.
"I think everybody knows that."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the same camp with Biffle, and he said the race being shorter shouldn't matter much.
"Once you get inside the fuel window, you probably won't come back to pit road," he said. " Guys will pit right on the bubble or really push their luck and pit a lap early hoping for a caution or something to get them inside the window.
"A couple of guys at the end of the race will probably be coming to the checkered flag with questions about whether they can actually make it on fuel or not. That is because the tires are so good. You don't need to come in for tires."
So as the race winds down and should a caution-flag fly, which drivers stay out and take the fuel-mileage gamble and which ones come in for a splash of fuel and some tires?
It's one of the questions that makes racing exciting, and in the case of the new and improved -- and much faster -- Pocono, such an unknown.
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