Dropping The Hammer: A Preview of the Pocono 500

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IJune 3, 2009

LONG POND, PA - JUNE 08:  Brian Vickers, driver of the #83 Red Bull Toyota, finishes in 2nd place during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pocono 500 on June 8, 2008 at Pocono International Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

For NASCAR Sprint Cup Series fans, there are plenty of words to describe the races at Pocono Raceway: long, grueling, boring, a snooze-fest, four-hour marathon, and oh yea, did I say long?

The 2.5-mile triangular-shaped superspeedway often produces lengthy races that barely reach the four-hour length, just enough to get racefans at the track or watching the tube to get a bit sleepy (if the racing action isn't exciting on the track).

With three distinct corners and straights, Pocono throws off competitors and teams right off the bat from Friday's practice session to the events leading up to the race on Sunday.

For most wins at this facility in the 2000s, Chevrolet and Ford lead the manufacturer fray with six to boot, while Dodge has logged three victories.

In the past, the Pennsylvania track was infamous for its reputation as "a superspeedway that drives like a road course."

But in recent years, that label has faded away somewhat when NASCAR modified the gear ratios which has taken away that shifting ability from the corners to straights transition. What does that mean, to the layman racing fan?

That means we won't see as much passing opportunities like in previous Pocono races. Still, that doesn't mean that we won't be treated to, at least, a decent show...if it's for passes behind the leader.

In the past five races at Pocono, there have been five different winners, from Denny Hamlin's July triumph that gave him the 2006 season sweep at the track to last year's Pennsylvania 500 win by Carl Edwards. Translation: we'll most likely see a different winner this Sunday.

And speaking of contenders for Sunday's Pocono 500, let's look at the drivers who'll most likely run up front, and one particular driver who I think may pull off a well-deserved second trip to Victory Lane.

The Contenders

Season sweeps are nothing new at Pocono, as they are almost constant at this track as the rain that has spoiled the races for this season. Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson know a thing or two these two-for-all discounts, having swept the races in 2006 and '04 respectively.

Hamlin did OK in last year's races, finishing fourth and 23rd in the two events at Pocono. With his No. 11 FedEx team running a consistent, but win-less seventh place in the championship standings, Sunday's 500-miler may be just what this Joe Gibbs Racing driver need to end the goose-egg's blues.

It may be said that Johnson has been peaking too early in 2009, but make no mistake, the driver of the No. 48 Lowe's/Kobalt Chevrolet demonstrated last Sunday at Dover why he's won the Sprint Cup title for the past three years.

If we see that kind of determination again at Pocono, we may just see the El Cajon, Calif. driver make his third visit to the winner's circle at the track and for this season.

Edwards made his return to the grounds of Victory Lane with his win last July, taking the lead with 14 laps to go to win that nail biter of a fuel-mileage race. Will we see more of the same on Sunday? As far as a fuel-mileage race, most likely not with the barrage of cautions that will probably happen.

But as far as Edwards contending among the leaders? You can count on it, and it does seem overdue for the AFLAC-man to pay his "dues" for a win.

Tony Stewart has probably impressed his critics this season with a relatively "new" No. 14 team that has taken over the points lead this week with an impressive but heartbreaking runner-up finish at Dover last Sunday. Known for his summer streaks for wins (or his breakdowns), the Rusheville Rocket looks ever poised to give his Stewart-Haas Racing team its first true win on Sunday.

Kurt Busch is probably the "dark horse" among the A-list picks for Sunday, having won twice at this facility in the July races of 2005 and '07. A track that suits Busch's hard-driving with finesse tactics, the chances for Win No. 2 for car No. 2 looks pretty good.

But are you ready for my personal pick for this Sunday's race? He's not a first-time winner, although Johnson and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. fans may beg to differ about his moves in the 2006 fall race at Talladega. Next to the plate tracks of the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, this particular driver has been knocking on the door for a victory at Pocono.

Brian Vickers has been long overdue for his second career victory, which has been painfully as epic as the journey to get his first win in the Cup ranks. You can almost list down all the races where Vickers "should've" won his second race, from last year's Coca-Cola 600 to well, this year's 24 Hour at Lowe's.

Still, the 25-year-old driver has been about the brightest star for Team Red Bull Racing, standing 17th in the championship chase, 131 points behind 12th place Mark Martin.

If the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota is set up to Vickers' liking and if his team has found the edge between the balance of horsepower and fuel mileage superiority, we may just see an "upset" on Sunday. He may not be everybody's pick for the win, but as the old adage goes, "expect the unexpected," especially at Pocono.

Keys to Winning

1. Superior fuel mileage vs horsepower

It's a damn tricky proposition to ponder before the arrival of the race on Sunday at Pocono. Is it going to be one of those drawn-out, green flag marathons with a myriad of late race cautions, or a yellow-flag fest in the first half with a long green-flag run in the second half?

If it's the first scenario, fuel mileage can be thrown out the window. It'll be the teams who find the edge of how far they can push their engines that'll find themselves up-front in the late going of this race, which may be particularly important with the possible advent of a "double file restart" rule.

In the case of the second situation, this puts teams on their collective boiling point of strategies. There are endless options to choose from.

Staying out and hoping the car holds up just enough to fend off the drivers on fresher tires and with fuel, or short-pitting (or cutting your pit window in half so that your driver inherits the lead when the other competitors pit) and running down the cars ahead of you on the track.

2. Qualfiying up front

We NASCAR writers, beginners or not, say it over and over again, but track position is very paramount at any track on the Cup circuit. Pocono, which has been home to the aero-dreaded push since the days when stock cars no longer became stock (for that debate, ask for your particular NASCAR writers on B/R), puts a good qualifying position to a premium.

The front-row starters have won three of the past five races here, with Hamlin and Kahne winning from the pole in '06 and '08, while Busch won from the outside pole-position in the July '07 race.

3. Staying cool

Except for those abnormal weather conditions of the 2006 and '07 races where it was either unseasonably cool or rainy, look for this Sunday's event to be a hot one...for the drivers inside their tin machines.

While the weather does not call for rain or oppressive heat, Sunday's weather calls for partly cloudy conditions with the temperatures reaching near the low 80s. This translates for a relatively comfortable time for the fans sitting in the grandstands, but for an oven-baked experience in the cars for the drivers.

And with this being a 500-miler that reaches the four-hour mark, drivers must stay hydrated and cool in their cars. Otherwise, it may be them, not their engine, that will expire prematurely of energy.

And by the way

It really hurts me to see that Carl Long's unjust penalty of $200,000 and a 12-race suspension in the Cup series was upheld on Tuesday. Here's an underdog driver, who like us race fans, have a passion for the sport. Unlike most of us fans who dream of driving these 3400 pound vehicles, Long, on occasion, gets to fulfill that fantasy.

Sure he's never going to win a race, nor make the Chase or finish these races. But he competes because he loves the mere fact that he gets to be on the track with some of the best drivers in the world.

Yes, he did have an over-sized engine that was deemed illegal by the powers of NASCAR. And yes, that does warrant a penalty. But 200 grand and a 12-race suspension from the garage area?

Long, per interviews with ESPN's Marty Smith, says he cannot pay the penalty, nor can his crew chief. Understandably, he's very irate how the infraction was doled out to him, saying that NASCAR only cares about the big bucks and not about its fans and drivers.

Did Long's engine really give him an advantage in the All-Star Challenge Race? Most certainly not.

This brings up the old debate of how NASCAR slaps the heavy penalties on the relatively obscure drivers of the touring series, but gives pinches to the top teams and drivers.

Having been a fan of the sport since 1991, I'm almost feeling as if this racing series, like Long says, is more on gaining the big dollar signs rather than catering to its fans and its "reps" in the drivers and teams.

Why are the TV ratings so low? Why are fans not coming to the track as they used to?

You can tell me all you want about the sport changing and that it's good for NASCAR to transition from one era to another. That's fine.

But do these changes have to come at the cost of quality and fairness to all? When fans praise the Car of Tomorrow, it's more often than not that its compliments are due to its safety features, not the product it brings to the track in terms of competition.

Sure, we fans get scoring updates via the ticker, and new race fans are informed of the terms of the sport through flashy animation and some cartoon rodent entertains the kids...supposedly.

However, bells and whistles aside, when NASCAR said last year that it wanted to step back to its roots, it gave me some hope that we'd see some of the magic that made this sport reach the No. 2 ranks of fan attendance and popularity, right behind the NFL.

Have we seen it go back to its roots?

Yes...of the roots of 2001-present, where it's pretty unfortunate that the sport's leading heads are looked in the same regard as Bud Selig of Major League Baseball and Gary Bettman of the NHL. That's pretty pathetic.

It's time for this sport to truly go back to the basics. Please the fans, put on a good show, and giving the underdogs a chance on the track.

And oh by the way, this is TNT's first of six races for 2009. Watch for this Sunday's Pocono 500 on TNT at 12 PM/ET, starting with NASCAR on TNT Live!


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