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Will drivers cut corner at revamped Pocono?

June 07, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Pocono Raceway

Drivers debate temptation of new Turn 2 apron before Pocono 400

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LONG POND, Pa. -- There are no cactus dotting the hillsides. There are no coyotes and rattlesnakes. There are no gauchos on horseback. And there won't be drivers routinely trying to cut the corner -- at least, not on purpose.

Indeed, the green surroundings of Pocono Raceway are about as far as you can get from the arid conditions in Phoenix, where many NASCAR drivers have become adept at cutting the corner of a backstretch dogleg that was widened in a recent configuration. Pocono underwent a similar change before this season, when a curb lining the inside of Turn 2 was eliminated, and a new asphalt apron was extended 15 feet from the corner.

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During a test at Pocono last month, several drivers lauded the elimination of the curb, which could feel like much more than a mere bump at 180 mph. More catchfencing and an additional length of the SAFER barrier have also been added in the area, which is better known as the "tunnel" turn since it runs over the infield access tunnel. The goal of the change was to try and keep the field tighter together through that corner, which track management hopes will ultimately translate into closer finishes.

But the elimination of the curb also prompts natural questions over whether the more adventurous drivers in the Sprint Cup Series will try and use that extra 15 feet of new asphalt to cut the corner, as many competitors now routinely do with the reconfigured dogleg in Phoenix. The answer? You're probably more likely to find a Gila monster stalking the shores of Long Pond.

"I've got probably a handful of guys that I have an idea that would try to do that, try to cut the race track. And it's not going to be good for them when they try to do it," said four-time Pocono winner Denny Hamlin, who will start on the pole for Sunday's Sprint Cup Series race (1 p.m. ET, TNT).

"It’s a cool idea, but the new asphalt is like two inches higher than the old asphalt. It's not a new transition. So you're going to rip your splitter. You're literally just going to tear your front end right off the car if you try to cut that corner. But somebody's going to get forced down there probably at some point, and I'll be interested to see what the outcome is of that.

"But you can't use it like Phoenix. At Phoenix, you're running 120 mph, where here you're running 190 going into that corner. And … if the new asphalt is two inches higher -- physics ain't going to let that happen. It's a cool thought, but it's not going to be usable."

Given the narrow width of the tunnel turn -- which is a replica of a corner at Indianapolis Motor Speedway -- drivers were happy to see the curb go. With the speeds they carry into that corner, they might as well have been hitting a wall. And the extended apron at the least provides an escape route for drivers who find themselves in trouble.

"I think it is a great change, because … when (cars) get pushed down, at least now you have somewhere to go," said Brad Keselowski, who will start third Sunday. "That curb before was kind of a race-killer. If you hit it, it would damage the front splitter on these cars, and that dictates a lot of the car's performance, and it could really end your day and not necessarily be your fault. I thought it was a good thing and a great change."

But as for cutting the corner at full speed? "I am sure someone is going to try it," said Keselowski, one of the first to make a practice of cutting the dogleg in Phoenix. "Clean air is so important, and when we all go down into Turn 2 and we are stacked up, I am sure someone will try to use it to find clean air. We will be all watching to see how they get through or if they make it. It should be interesting. It looks really rough down there, and I am not so confident the car will stick there, but I am sure someone will try it."

Given that berths in the expanded Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup now hinge on race wins, perhaps someone trying to steal a victory on a green-white-checkered restart? Hamlin certainly hopes not.

"I think all the Cup drivers are smarter than that," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "But I'm telling you, the new asphalt is so much higher, and it's not smoothed out at all. It's not a smooth transition. So it's literally like you just hit a huge jump when you hit it. … The only reason somebody's going to go down there is if they get forced down there. And if they get forced, they probably are going to be turning hard left into the garage as soon as they get to the front straightaway.
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