Tunnel vision: Pocono tweak gets favorable reviews
May 27, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
Pocono Raceway officials have not relented and finally added a fourth turn to their historic venue, but one change made during the offseason is expected to impact the racing on the 2.5-mile track.
Officially, it's Turn 2. But because it rests above the tunnel entrance to the infield, it's long been known as the Tunnel Turn. And the curbing that once lined the inside of the difficult stretch of track is now gone.
While the simple asphalt strip didn't have the stopping power of a wall, it could be just as destructive.
"I hated that curb back there," Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer said Tuesday during a break in testing. "It scared the crap out of me. You're carrying so much speed back there and you're … right there on what felt like a 2-foot curb. I hit it once in qualifying and it destroyed the front of my car. I never got close to it again after that. It's kind of nice that it's not there anymore."
Bowyer was one of 12 drivers scheduled to take part in the Pocono test. Others were Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett, Jeff Burton, Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Reed Sorenson, Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers.
Pocono, known for it's unusual three-turn layout that gives it the nickname of the Tricky Triangle, hosts the Pocono 400 in June, as well as a second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race again in August -- the GoBowling.com 400. The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series will be at Pocono for the August race weekend, as well.
The removal of the curbing allowed track officials to install a 15-foot apron on the inside, a move that should make the track's tightest turn safer for competitors.
"Hitting the curb bounces you out back to the right and back into traffic," said Nick Igdalsky, Pocono's executive vice president and COO. "So now they have a … viable escape route.
"It gives them an opportunity to run more comfortably and a few miles (per hour) faster. … It keeps the field a little tighter in (Turn) 2, which was the choke point. By doing that, hopefully that translates to more consistently closer finishes down the front straightaway."
New SAFER Barrier and catchfencing has also been added on the inside of the track, Igdalsky said.
While he said he doesn't anticipate drivers using the apron often during the course of a race, Bowyer said it could add another element to the already hectic restarts at Pocono.
"When we go off in there 4-, 5-, 20-wide or whatever it is on the restart, somebody will be on that apron," he said. "They probably won't come out the other end but somebody will try it."
McMurray, winner of this year's Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, noticed the change while scouting the track in a rental car before testing got underway.
"I thought I would just cut the corner off," McMurray said, "but there's a pretty big transition from the race track to the asphalt. It's actually nice just to not have the curb there because I feel like you used to go through that corner and if you hit it just right, you think 'I can drive harder the next lap.' But if you miss it and you touch the curb, it would shoot you out toward the wall. It's actually more forgiving than what it was before."
Burton, running a limited schedule for MWR this year, agreed with Bowyer in that the apron could come into play when the field is re-set and wound up for a restart.
"Restarts at Pocono are insane getting into the Tunnel Turn," he said. "It's nuts. If people get bottled up, you might see some people try to use it, which will make things real interesting when you get into (Turn) 3."
With a rough winter now in the background, track president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky described the day's test session as "better than 'Groundhog Day.' "
"This is what we're all here for," he said. "This is why we're here, to have that smell in the air and that sound reverberating through the office."
The Tunnel Turn changes will "definitely enhance" the racing on that part of the track.
"If it already wasn't the hardest turn in NASCAR, it's going to add a different layer to that," Brandon Igdalsky said.
Larson, looking to make his first start at the unique track, admitted that "shifting is not one of my strong suits" after a missed shift during the morning session left his Chip Ganassi Racing team changing the engine and transmission in the No. 42 Chevrolet.
"Hopefully I got it out of the way early and can finish the test without missing anymore," the 21-year-old Larson said. "I think it's a fun track just because it's so different than everything we race on, and each corner is different here. …
"I've gotten to race here in Pennsylvania in sprint cars and stuff and struggled really bad so Pennsylvania is not one of my favorite places to come but hopefully we can change that at Pocono. Pennsylvania definitely has the weirdest race tracks. That's for sure. I think there's just a bunch of weird people in Pennsylvania to come up with tracks like this."