Ah, so we're back in the luscious green scenery of the Poconos of Pennsylvania, where the summer heat and humidity are a common place to the drivers and fans as the strung out, single file racing at this 2.5-mile mammoth of a speedway for the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 (Live, Sunday, 2 PM EDT on ESPN).
When the NASCAR Sprint Cup series last raced at Pocono Raceway, the battle to the checkers became a fuel mileage game that saw Jimmie Johnson sputter to the finish and Tony Stewart "gas" his way to the first victory of his Stewart-Haas Racing operation.
Chevrolet dominated the day with five of their entries finishing in the top 10. It was this race where the shootout restarts were introduced as an injection of freshness.
Simply put, this new restart rule has put new life into a lackluster season on the speedways with the safer, but competition killing Car of Tomorrow.
The 500-miler in June was only salvaged by the double-file field reboots and dramatic gas economy story lines that otherwise saw Hendrick and Stewart-Haas cars having a field day with the competition.
That's not to say that the "underdogs" like Brian Vickers, David Reutimann, Jeff Burton, Sam Hornish Jr., or Marcos Ambrose are out of the picture. In fact, they might be some of the dark horses to watch throughout Sunday's race.
Then there's the Juan Pablo Montoya story from last Sunday's late-race controversy, where the Colombian's speeding penalty ultimately killed the No. 42 team's shot at a victory at Indianapolis.
Pocono, which is similar in its layout to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, might be the first and best shot at what JPM may perceive for "vindication."
Points, revenge, sneakers, heat, engines—the story lines are plentiful! Perhaps that might help fans stay awake for what will be a parade of a race.
Keys To Victory
As I mentioned back in June, the keys to winning at this facility are a balance between horsepower and handling. Both play a factor with the fuel mileage game.
Some teams may apt to sacrifice running near the red line, fielding a car where the driver is assured of superior fuel mileage in the case of a long, green-flag segment.
Expect that to be the case for the drivers who are a virtual lock for the Chase, stroking for points rather than wins.
Others, which include those who may be out of playoff contention or desperately need a win to boost their chances for a top-12 berth, will go for maximum horsepower and handling.
In turn, this might make the "tortoises" of the field appear as if they were standing still for 200 laps.
For the literary folks, Sunday's race at Pocono could be likened to a NASCAR version of "The Tortoise and the Hare."
We all know how that one turned out in that Aesop fable. However, this is the Sprint Cup series, and anything can and will happen before that checkered flag unfurls atop the lucky winner and the 42 losers on Sunday.
Who To Watch At Pocono
Season sweeps at the triangularly-shaped super speedway are something of a rare beauty at Pocono.
Since the track was added on to the championship schedule in 1974, the season sweep has only occurred in four of the past 63 races at this track.
Tim Richmond started the sweeps in style, going on a three-peat streak from both '86 races to the spring '87 race.
Bobby Labonte accomplished the sweep in 1999 during his days with the No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac.
While Labonte has been winless since 2003, the 2000 Cup champion could prove his worth to the Yates/Hall of Fame Racing team with a solid run and finish in a season that has been murky and lost in the 28th position in the championship standings.
Five years later, Jimmie Johnson decided that he'd pull one out of the toolbox, perhaps pondering to "buy the track" when he opted for the "Win One, Win The Other" coupon offer at the race's conclusion.
Johnson has a love/hate relationship with the speedway, tallying a pair of wins, five top-fives, and 10 top-10s in his 15 starts. Capitalizing on JPM's mistake and having a solid Lowe's/Kobalt Tools Chevy, Team 48 looks to capture win number four of 2009.
If JJ captures the flag on Sunday, he'll find himself tied for the most wins on the tour and more importantly, tied for first place in points if The Chase started next weekend.
Brian Vickers has to be tired of having the car that fades towards the final segment of these Pocono races. In 11 starts, the 2003 NASCAR Nationwide Series champ has four top-10 finishes (all of them being top-five results).
With a future that looks a bit uncertain and Team Red Bull Racing appearing uncertain on a manufacturer for 2010, a Vickers victory might clear up some of the internal issues with this Toyota team.
Juan Pablo Montoya will be licking his chops when he climbs into that No. 42 Target Chevrolet from Friday's practice and qualifying session to Sunday's "big dance."
While he hasn't compiled the greatest of stats in his five races at Pocono, his eighth place finish in June has to be a confidence booster and some reason for JPM to look forward to redeeming himself from his speeding infraction on pit road in last Sunday's Brickyard 400.
Denny Hamlin, who "gained" experience from the NASCAR Racing 2003 Season edition off the simulated track, cites the game as his catalyst to his victories at the track.
That said, Tony Stewart has to be the absolute favorite coming into Sunday's Pennsylvania 500.
Smoke has to be tickled a bit to be returning back to the sight of his team's first win, which was the first owner/driver victory since Ricky Rudd's "Martinsville Miracle" from September of 1998.
With two victories, seven top-fives, and 15 top-10 finishes in his 21 starts at Pocono, the No. 14 Old Spice Swagger Chevy might be the car causing the field to go "candle apple red."
Other favorites include Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, and Kasey Kahne.
Fans have always been critical about the races at Pocono, which they deem too long and uneventful.
If we were to look at the number of lead changes under the COT era at Pocono, it appears as if the racing at the track is respectively competitive.
There were 23 lead changes in the June 8 running of the Pocono 500 in 2008, a reasonably decent stat with this boxy machine.
Two months later, there were 25 lead changes, which again on record, looks wonderful and crowd-pleasing.
The most recent race run at Pocono saw 22 lead changes, mostly contributed to the fuel mileage drama toward the final 100 miles of the event.
It's no secret that the races run at this facility aren't popular with racing fans not hailing from Pennsylvania or are fans of this track.
Part of the dull racing at Pocono can be attributed to the gear ratio change from 2005, which saw the elimination of the races where drivers would shift from third to fourth gear in their cars around the three unique corners.
While dropping the hammer (yes, another pun!) might seem like a wonderful thing to do with a sports car or a stock car machine, to know that the drivers run at fourth gear (with the exception of caution flag periods/restarts/entering and exiting pit road) is a bit of a downer to the action and dramatics for speed and momentum.
I'm sure most of you have seen the circulating picture of a 2010 Ford Mustang COT for the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which along with its counterpart from the rivaling manufacturers, will see its first breath of action in next July's spectacular in Daytona.
Personally, it's great to see that the supposed "No. 2" division of NASCAR will have a true identity as a pony car series.
Let's face it. Unless you're tremendously talented or have the racing and mechanics smarts, a driver that's presentable and/or has a sponsorship package with them is most likely to land a Cup ride.
Seemingly gone are the days of the Nationwide or Truck Series feeding its big sister series with fresh talent..or are they?
Most definitely not, because there are those like Justin Allgaier, Brian Scott, Caitlin Shaw, T.J. Bell, and Colin Braun who will hone and develop themselves as future NASCAR racing stars.
Meanwhile, these pony cars will only give a new look to the Nationwide Series. They'll be in stark contrast to the sedan "beauties" of the Cup ranks, which in turn, may bode well for the N'wide division which desperately needs a crop of new talent to take the "torch" from the likes of Jason Keller and Mike Bliss.
We might be seeing quite the revolution in NASCAR in 2010 and beyond.
And for this particular race fan, sure, the times, they-are-a-changin', but these might be ones for the best!
Enjoy the race, wherever you may be!