Crew chief Chris Rice sizes up story lines, strategy for Pocono
Editor's note: Chris Rice, crew chief for the No. 99 Toyota for RAB Racing and driver James Buescher in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis on the keys to Pocono 400 race weekend at Pocono Raceway:
Pocono bills itself as the Tricky Triangle with good reason. It's as much as challenge for crew chiefs as it is for drivers.
You do have to really work to be ideal in one end of the race track. You're not going to get all three turns correct.
Drivers are going to be running 202-203 mph at the end of the front straightaway because the cars will be lower to the ground -- thanks to the new ride-height rules -- than they've ever been. You've got banking in Turn 1 that you can drive up the hill heading to the tunnel turn. It's not as flat as Turn 3 for the last corner, but that's the turn where you have to really be set up to be fast. That's where you make your hay down that long front straightaway, and you can maintain speed in the other two.
Drivers probably will shift gears at points on the track because of what we encountered with shifting on the Nationwide Series cars at Phoenix this year. I guarantee you the Sprint Cup crowd went to work after seeing that. It's going to be very interesting to look through the in-car cameras to see what the drivers are going to do.
One thing that won't be similar to Phoenix is taking a shortcut through the new apron in Turn 2, the tunnel turn. By removing the curbing and reconfiguring the tunnel turn, you may have drivers running across the new apron when they take off, but I don't think they'll race across it unless they're extremely desperate. When you race across that apron, it de-wedges the car, meaning the car will want to turn around like it's on ice. It's going to make it so much freer that the car will want to be loose and prone to wreck. I think once they get up to speed and start running fast laps, they'll primarily still use the banking.
We talk about handling all the time, but horsepower is huge at Pocono. If you're down any, it kills you. But still, you have to be able to get off the final turn fast so you can use that horsepower. If you can get on the gas early enough, you can carry all that speed on the exit even while you're turning. There will be a big difference from your back markers to your front-running guys.
With group qualifying taking place for the first time at Pocono, I imagine it should be one good lap for each team in each of the three segments, but the draft is going to be big for carrying momentum down the front straightaway. You'll want that aero pull for extra speed, but you don't want to be so close to the car in front of you that it either makes you loose or tight being in dirty air. I don't think it's going to be typical Pocono qualifying where the fastest car sits on the pole. I feel like whoever gets the best draft will be up front.
It's hard to go against Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team at Pocono, but I look at Denny Hamlin, fresh off a top-five finish last weekend at Dover, and he is crazy-good at that place. Darian Grubb and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team are starting to get some momentum back together, and even though the Toyotas and JGR aren't quite as good as they were last year, they're going to get their act together. Those are two good ones to look at, but you also can't rule out the No. 2 and Brad Keselowski. That White Deuce is just on it everywhere he goes.