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Repaved Pocono presents unknown challenge

June 05, 2012, Mark Aumann,

Two days of testing will let drivers learn how cars will perform on track

Denny Hamlin was blunt in his assessment of what he expects when he arrives Wednesday for Sprint Cup testing on the recently repaved Pocono Raceway.

"Any advantage I thought I might have had at Pocono has obviously disappeared at this point," Hamlin said last weekend at Dover. "I go there with a lot of optimism that it's just a brand new track for everyone and it's going to be the first one to figure it out wins."

"I go there with a lot of optimism that it's just a brand new track for everyone and it's going to be the first one to figure it out wins."


The Mattioli family might hold the keys to the front door, but Denny Hamlin has owned Pocono from the moment he arrived there as a rookie in 2006 and swept both races.

With four wins and eight top-10 finishes in 12 starts, Pocono has been Hamlin's personal playground. But no more.

He'll be starting from scratch.

"I'm going to approach Pocono like it's an entirely different race track that I've never been on, because basically it will be," Hamlin said. "We've gone through a lot of rule changes and surface changes at that track every time that we've gone back, and so it's going to be another element that's changed."

But Hamlin isn't the only one who will be throwing out their race notes. Before Hamlin became Pocono's master, Jeff Gordon was the one everyone else was chasing there.

In an eight-race stretch of Pocono starts between 1995 and 1999, Gordon either finished first or second in seven of them. He won the spring race last year to tie Bill Elliott atop the all-time winner's list with five victories at the track.

Just don't call him "defending champion," because Gordon said you can't relate what happened before to what might happen in Sunday's 400-miler.

"I think there is very little that we're probably going to have in our setup that would compare to what we had there last year," Gordon said. "Pocono is going to have similar challenges just because the shape and the banking of the turns haven't changed.

"It's just how much grip level it's going to have and the smoothness of the track, so how aggressive you are going to be able to get with getting the car sealed down to the race track? Then just how aggressive you are going to be driving the car?"

Kasey Kahne might have more of an idea about what to expect from the new Pocono than the rest of the field.

When he was there in April for the Goodyear tire test, Kahne turned laps -- in race trim -- at almost 175 mph, or more than 2 mph faster than the track qualifying record he set in 2004.

* Corner speeds up during tire test

The key for him is to learn as much as he can without tearing up any equipment, since the typical three-day weekend in the Pennsylvania mountains is turning into a weeklong vacation.

"I guess we just try to be smart about it and run as much as we need to, but not more than we need to," Kahne said.

And Dale Earnhardt Jr. echoed that opinion.

"Yeah, I'm not real excited about being up there that long," Earnhardt said. "I don't think anybody is, to be honest with you. [But] that's the schedule, and we'll go up there and just run around in circles. We've got two race cars in the trailer, and we'll try to not tear either one of them up before the race starts."

The additional two days of testing should help accomplish two things. One, it will give teams a chance to build a new notebook on setups. But perhaps more importantly, it will help wear in the new surface and perhaps help create a wider groove, allowing for more passing.

That's been an issue in the past with newly repaved tracks, Earnhardt said.

"I know NASCAR is wanting to get enough rubber down so we have a good race," Earnhardt said. "That's really the reason why we are going for so long, to really avoid any kind of debacle with rubbering the track down.

"There's really no other excuse for being there the entire week."

Crew chiefs and engineers despise unknown variables, and Pocono presents the biggest of unknowns. Will there be more than one racing groove? Will the higher speeds create more stress on engines and transmissions?

Carl Edwards is one driver approaching this week with an open mind.

"I am going to go there and creep up on it and take it easy and ease into the new surface, figuratively, with speed and everything," Edwards said. "I assume we are going to be screaming fast, so I want to make sure we pace ourselves and learn as much as we can during the testing time we have.

"With a new surface, there is a huge opportunity for someone to figure something out and dominate. We want to be those guys."

Whether he runs well or struggles to figure out the new surface, Greg Biffle agreed that Pocono was more than primed for a repave. Plus, shortening the race distance by 100 miles should add to the intensity factor.

"I am excited about that, and I think the racing being shortened to 400 miles will create some excitement with the fans," Biffle said. "I think it will be a little better race and not so drawn out. There will be more urgency to go and different strategy.

"I am nervous as can be going into next week because I have no idea what to expect. ... I am pretty anxious to get there and get on the track."