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Drivers come to grips with new, faster Pocono

June 07, 2012, David Caraviello,

LONG POND, Pa. -- Nearly entire field breaks track speed record on repave in test turns

It features the same quirky triangular design, has the same three unique corners, possesses that same throwback feel. It's still Pocono Raceway: the big track on a hilltop, down the road from the ski outfitters and ice cream shops and honeymoon nooks that dot the landscape in this part of the world. But once drivers rolled out onto the 2.5-mile ribbon of fresh asphalt, everything seemed different.

Pocono has been a staple on the NASCAR circuit since 1974, but to competitors it felt like a completely new race track thanks to a resurfacing project that was completed in mid-April. The track itself is smoother. Braking and shifting points have changed, as have transitions into the corners. It even looks different. There's more grip -- and more speed.

"You're not going to be able to look at any notes from previous years and try to predict a race winner for this thing."


AJ Allmendinger, fastest in the Thursday morning portion of a two-day test session that's preceding the race weekend, said data indicated his car was carrying about 211 mph down Pocono's long main straightaway and into the first turn.

"Pretty easy," Allmendinger said. "The speed's easy down the straightway. The problem is you have to turn at the end of it."

Things normally don't change much at Pocono, a time capsule of a race track that probably looks and feels very much like it did when Joseph and Rose Mattioli built it nearly four decades ago. But they're certainly different now. In Wednesday's first day of testing, 22 drivers unofficially bettered the track's speed record of 172.533 mph -- set by Kasey Kahne in qualifying for a 2004 event. Thursday morning, 35 of 42 drivers smashed the previous mark. Thursday afternoon, everyone broke it -- led by Kahne's top speed of 179.490 mph.

"It's definitely faster, but with the amount of grip that's here, you'll see the grooves widen out," said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR's vice president for competition. "It's all relative, because everybody's up a little bit, and I suspect the pole speed could be in the 180 mph range. They're 179 right now, and everybody's taking their test cars and test engines and putting them away."

Allmendinger said the track was likely as fast as it was going to get Thursday, thanks to overcast conditions. Race day is forecast to be clear and warmer, which could make the surface slicker and reduce speeds. But, as soon as Sprint Cup qualifying begins Saturday morning, expect Kahne's existing track record to be a goner. Drivers are carrying five to six more miles per hour into Turn 1 than they did before the resurfacing, and the increased speed is evident inside the car.

"The engine's louder, the vibrations are a little bit more," said Denny Hamlin. "Does it scare you? Not really. Not saying that I want to go any faster -- it's definitely very quick. Really, I was just surprised at the level of grip that the track has, and it continues to get faster and faster the more we run. I think by this weekend, anyone who takes time trials on [Saturday] is going to break the track record. All the cars should break the track record easily."

And all the crew chiefs will be scrambling to get a handle on the place. Hamlin has four wins at Pocono, but the resurfacing negates any advantage he had coming in. "You're pretty much starting over from scratch," he said. His team put a setup similar to what it would use at Indianapolis in the No. 11 car and hoped for the best. The tracks share some similarity, given that one of Pocono's corners was modeled after the Brickyard, and both tracks feature long straightaways.

"You're not going to be able to look at any notes from previous years and try to predict a race winner for this thing," said Hamlin.

That won't help Jeff Gordon, who won this race last year and is tied with Bill Elliott for all-time wins (five) at the track. Or Carl Edwards, a two-time winner here who is usually strong at Pocono.

"I've always really enjoyed racing here, and felt like I had a good handle on it -- where the braking points were, and how to apex my corners and things, and now that's basically out the window as far as I'm concerned," Edwards said. "It feels like a new race track to me.

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"The way you drive into Turn 1, you can be much more aggressive on the throttle. You can be really aggressive in the brakes. It feels different. It will be an opportunity to really shake things up here. The guys who normally do well here, they don't have an advantage anymore. It's a new day."

Drivers were universal in their praise of the grip level in the new surface, which matched up well with a right-side Goodyear tire that Cup cars employed earlier this season at Phoenix -- another venue that was recently repaved. In the two days of testing, though, drivers kept to the low groove that was rubbering in more rapidly, not quite ready to tiptoe into an upper groove where the grip promised to be less pronounced. "Nobody wants to venture up there," Hamlin said, "Because you risk ... wrecking once you get out of the line."

Hamlin said he told Sprint Cup director John Darby that NASCAR should put cones on the track to force cars into the upper groove during the test.

"We're just running in each others' snow tracks right now," Hamlin said. "There's a distinct line around the bottom in which you have to run, and you can't get out of it. That part of it is going to be tough. And really, it's going to be a fight for whoever gets position on one another going into the corner. ... You're going to see massive dive bombs going into the corner trying to get position. In my estimation, you'll probably see lots of excitement."

An ARCA race that precedes Sunday's main event promises to put more rubber down in the upper groove, and Sprint Cup drivers will have no choice but to brave the high line on restarts. Allmendinger said it could turn out similar to the event earlier this year at the resurfaced Phoenix facility, where everyone predicted a one-groove race track, but some drivers eventually discovered they could get a better run off the corner on the high side.

"I think you're going to see a really good race," Jeff Burton said. "The thing that everybody is concerned about, and I'll sit here today and tell you I'm concerned about it, is restarts -- driving into Turn 1 side by side on a new race track. Those are the things that always get your attention.

"The track's rubbering up, there's no question it's rubbering up. I think by the time Sunday comes, the groove is going to continue to widen out. ... The track, I think, is going to continue to get better."