News & Media

Drivers prepare for more gear shifting at Pocono

June 10, 2011, Joe Menzer,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Drivers were shifting from one position to another Friday at Pocono Raceway, where one of the hot topics was, well, shifting.

Adding a new twist to what arguably already was the most unique track on the Sprint Cup circuit, NASCAR mandated changes to transmission gear ratios and rear-end gear ratios for this Sunday's 5-Hour Energy 500. Theoretically, it will lead to more gear shifting by drivers during the long, physically demanding race on the 2.5-mile track, where in recent years there was no apparent benefit to shifting for drivers.

Pocono Speeds

Practice 1
2. P. Menard 167.648 53.684
3. J. Johnson 167.454 53.746
4. T. Stewart 167.264 53.807
5. Ku. Busch 166.728 53.980
2. B. Vickers 166.067 54.195
3. C. Edwards 166.030 54.207
4. Keselowski 165.926 54.241
5. J. Johnson 165.700 54.315

With the new gear ratios, the additional shifting supposedly will give drivers the options, for example, of dropping down into third gear heading into the first turn in an effort to gain better grip coming off the corner in that relatively slow part of the track, or shifting coming out of Turn 2 to ensure maximum speed coming down the short chute of the track's triangle configuration. A missed shift in either instance, of course, could spell disaster in terms of a slow lap time or by causing wrecks or spinouts if cars around the errant shifter don't slow enough in time to get by without incident.

Drivers, however, seemed split Friday on how much of a difference the changes will truly make.

"It will be the same as last year," Dale Earnhardt Jr. insisted. "Take last year's race and replay it and just imagine all the drivers are shifting."

But Denny Hamlin, winner of two of the past three races at Pocono, disagreed. Hamlin was fastest in Friday's final practice -- the last before Sunday's race because no practices are slated for Saturday -- and said increased shifting could change strategies for the race.

"It's another element that gets changed," said Hamlin, who lap of 166.125 mph was fastest in Happy Hour. "I think that we're really only shifting in one corner -- in Turn 1. But it's tough for me to say. You're still going to have the guys that typically run good here. Looking at the practice speeds, it looked like the typical guys were pretty good.

"So I don't think it will change a whole lot, but I do think it's going to be tough on the reliability of these race cars for 500 miles. Shifting takes its toll on engines, for sure. Somebody will break


Hamlin was followed on the Happy Hour speed chart by Brian Vickers (166.067 mph), Carl Edwards (166.030 mph), Brad Keselowski (165.926 mph) and Jimmie Johnson (165.700 mph).

Brett Bodine, NASCAR's research and development director of competition, explained why changes were mandated not only in the transmission ratio but in the rear-end gear ratio as well.

"In the past couple years, [NASCAR] chose a rear gear that made it next to impossible to use third gear as you made a lap around the race track," Bodine said. "[Cup Series director John Darby] has changed the rear-end gear ratio as well as the transmission ratio to allow the drivers to use third gear, and primarily it's in an effort to allow the driver and team to maximize the RPM on each of the three straightaways.

"If you look at the track layout, you see the issue they're faced with -- the frontstretch is 3,740 feet, the backstretch [between Turns 1 and 2] is 3,055 feet and the short straightaway [between Turns 2 and 3] is only 1,780 feet. Consequently, that straightaway you don't get anywhere near your maximum RPM [in fourth gear]. This is an effort to even those three straightaways out in the RPM that the engine will attain."

Bodine envisions it making the race more action-packed from start to finish.

"To me, it does have the potential to make the action from Turn 2 to the third turn more interesting," Bodine said. "When you add the element of shifting, that adds an element for mistakes, which would allow some [other] drivers to capitalize on those mistakes."

Darby added that despite some drivers' worries, the additional shifting should make Sunday's long race easier on engines.

"There has been some confusion that shifting was not allowed at Pocono and that isn't true," Darby said. "The real reason shifting stopped at Pocono was because gear ratios weren't compatible for shifting. Over the last few years teams have done it with limited success, but not on a consistent basis. So what we did was change transmission gear ratios to make it easier on engines and give teams a better opportunity to use third gear and shift."

The drivers seemed to be somewhat apprehensive about the changes, wondering what they will bring Sunday.

"Is that our push-to-pass button? I don't know," Clint Bowyer said of the transmission ratio change. "There were a couple of times even in the last couple of years, getting down into [Turn] 1 where you'd get really bottled up and you'd actually reach down and grab your gear anyway. You'd be bogged down so much that you felt like you needed to.

"Only time will tell. We'll have to get out there on the race track. I don't know that it will be an every-lap deal. Certainly, probably, on restarts, it will be a factor -- but we just have to get out there and feel it out and see what we've got. I've never shifted here before -- but like I said, it's not that big of a deal. We shift on the road courses all the time and it's really a given."

It's all a matter of making simple adjustments as a driver, Kurt Busch added.

"These are the best drivers in the world and nobody is going to have problems adjusting to it," said Busch, who then went out and spun and hit the wall during Friday's final practice, forcing him into a backup car for Saturday qualifying and Sunday's race. "In a roundabout way, it's just like when we went to Daytona and Talladega earlier this year and how things evolved with the two-car draft. If you're going to find speed going faster as a two-car draft, well, you're going to find speed in shifting out there.

"No matter what it takes, every driver is out there to find that extra speed and be the fastest guy on the track."

At the same time, he insisted drivers will have to be careful not to abuse their cars by shifting too frequently.

"The technique is just to be as nice to the equipment as possible," Busch said. "You don't want to be slamming it into gears. You don't want to be aggressive with it. And in the back of your mind, you always have to keep track of the revs in the engine. You don't want to over-rev it."

* Sound Off: Drivers comment on the shift rule change and the strategy that follows