Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Pocono
1. Pocono re-pave hasn’t taken kindly to Denny Hamlin
The lore of Denny Hamlin’s exploits grew quickly at Pocono Raceway. That’ll happen when you win the first two races of your career at the tough-to-master speedway. Sprint Cup races, nonetheless.
Hamlin scored two more Pocono victories by his ninth start and three other top-5 finishes. The twin summer stretch of races at the Pennsylvania track was almost always a good way for Hamlin to boost his way into the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“It was a track that we circled on our calendars as one to expect to run up front and compete for the win,” Hamlin said.
But then the deteriorating pavement finally met its maker, and the 2012 race brought the Cup Series back to Pocono on a new, smooth, and perfectly-laid surface. Hamlin’s locked-in dominance fizzled.
No, Hamlin hasn’t been bad at Pocono since the repave. In the three races competed on the new surface, he has a pair of top-10 finishes and a 29th-place run due to a crash on a late restart. But he’s not been nearly as good as his first 12 starts on the old track.
His average number of laps led has dropped from 53 per race to eight. His average finish is down nearly five spots to 14th. And, most telling, Hamlin’s average Pocono running position is down to 12.6 from 8.25.
Last week’s finish at Indianapolis wasn’t exactly a boost of confidence or sign that better things are coming for Hamlin at Pocono. He finished a disappointing 18th.
“We need to start stringing some good finishes together,” Hamlin said this week after his downtrodden post-Brickyard Twitter post. “Pocono is a great place to do that.”
2. Jimmie Johnson is using that “C” word againNo, not that one. Or that one. Johnson’s use of a “C-word” is much more benign than something found on a Howard Stern show – but it still probably feels dangerous and downright malignant to other teams in the Cup garage.
The five-time champ waltzes back to Pocono this weekend dropping the word “clarity” when describing where his team is with the knowledge and development of NASCAR’s Gen-6 car. Sure, “clarity” sounds innocent and perhaps uninteresting out of context. But when you consider all of the moving pieces that go into making a car fast, having a clear idea of what inputs create the best outputs leads to downright dominance – or a 75-point lead in the point standings.
It’s the same word he used at Pocono when he dominated for the first time this season.
“I feel like we have a clearer vision now of what the car wants, what this Gen-6 car wants, and we’re getting smarter and smarter with it, and that leads into stretches where you can click off the wins and the finishes. Excited to have some clarity right now,” Johnson said this week.
Fortunately for the competition – and somewhat unexpectedly – Johnson didn’t return with the same chassis that so handily dominated Pocono’s first race and was only a pit-crew blunder short of a record-setting fifth Brickyard 400 win last week. Instead, Johnson is racing the car that dominated most of the day at Kentucky Speedway in June. That’s great news for the 42 other drivers, right?
3. Fuel mileage racing always in play at PoconoThe distance and long lap times of Pocono make short-pitting and racing the track like a road course a reality for teams desperate to jump track position in a manner easier – albeit much more risky – than simply passing cars on the track. It also routinely brings fuel mileage racing into play.
Of course, Johnson seems to have a leg up there, too. At least he did in the first Pocono race.
“In fuel-saving mode, I could get a nice gap off of (Turn) three and manage my fuel the rest of the way around the track,” Johnson said about the June race. “And guys would kind of inch back up to me and then I’d blister three again and get my gap and they’d slowly catch up due to fuel savings.”
Ah, clarity and what-not.
Fuel mileage racing doesn’t always receive the kindest rapport of strategies among many in NASCAR. But seasoned definer of racing Tony Stewart – remember his comments about how “racing” doesn’t require “passing” after last week’s race at Indianapolis? – actually enjoys the challenge of fuel conservation and management.
“To be in a situation where your speed is dictated off the guy behind you and not off of what you can do, it’s a different style of racing,” Stewart said. “It’s hard. It’s just as hard, if not tougher, than trying to run 100 percent.”
4. Passing easier at Pocono than Indianapolis, Stewart says Despite his vivid Indianapolis comments and takedown of those who think NASCAR’s top series should feature more rules designed to make two- and three-wide passes a normal thing in the sport, Stewart pointed out that the passing opportunities provided at Pocono are greater than what the sport just left at the Brickyard. Sure, the tracks share similarities, Stewart said, but Pocono provides a few more options.
“It’s harder to pass at the Brickyard than it is at Pocono,” Stewart said. “There’s a fair amount of room going into (Turn) one at Pocono, and you can run two-wide there and you can go two-wide in (Turn) three at the beginning of a run. But it’s pretty tough to run two-wide through the corners at Indy.”
Stewart credited the Pocono passing options – without any self-aware mentions of his recently-announced disillusionment for the actual act of passing – to that new track surface starting to improve with age.
“The good thing is that (the track has) lost just enough grip to where it’s making it easier to lay rubber in the racetrack now and a lot easier to see it,” Stewart said. “The track is in good shape.”
5. Johnson’s dominance currently making Chase seem awful intelligentYadda, yadda, yadda. Have you heard enough about the impending Chase for the Sprint Cup yet? Who is going to be in? Who’s going to be out? Just wait – the chatter is about to hit hyperdrive. Strap in, Chewie.
Pocono included, six races remain before NASCAR officially sets the lineup of the 11 drivers who will somehow try to scratch, claw and even bite their way past Johnson and the No. 48 for the 2013 title. We’ll talk plenty about who in the wildcard will be in, and who will be out. Pocono could even play a large role in that – just ask last year’s winner of the second race, Jeff Gordon.
But the larger point might be getting missed: The 2013 season is explaining perfectly why a playoff system for NASCAR’s championship is mostly a good idea.
Now I’m the first to admit I have grievances with how the points are doled out, how little wins actually mean anything and whether or not the 10-race fight for the crown is always the perfect way to find a champion.
But this year, with Johnson’s dominance on the top-end and the ridiculous struggle currently underway for the final few spots (a total of 19 measly points separates Greg Biffle in eighth and Kurt Busch in 14th), the Chase is proving to be a tool that will keep people engaged for much longer.
Johnson has a 75-point lead at the moment. He could hit the beach this weekend and play golf the next and still likely return to the sport with the point lead. Without a Chase, the 2013 champion’s trophy would have likely arrived at the engraving shop in July.
And further back? The Chase is doing wonders for the drivers who aren’t always doing wonders on the track. Just think of the value Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski and Busch are bringing to the table for sponsors – all of which would hardly exist without the championship battle.
No, the Chase isn’t perfect. It needs some amending. But this year, it’s working out pretty darn well.