The Frontstretch: Race Trax: Pennsylvania 500 by Amy Henderson -- Thursday July 20, 2006

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Race Trax: Pennsylvania 500

Amy Henderson · Thursday July 20, 2006


On Track
The Pennsylvania 500 is the twentieth race on the 36-race NASCAR Nextel Cup Series Schedule. This is the second and final visit for the Nextel Cup Series to the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway in 2006-they ran here in June. Pocono has hosted the Nextel Cup Series since 1974, and Richard Petty was the first driver to win in Cup competition at the track. The track is triangular in shape with three completely different corners with banking ranging from six to fourteen degrees and the longest straightaway in NASCAR. Drivers will race 200 laps for the checkered flag. The entry list includes 2005 polesitter Jamie McMurray and race winner Kurt Busch.

48 teams will compete for 43 starting spots for Sunday, with the top 35 in car owner points guaranteed a starting position. Beginning this weekend, 2006 owner's points will determine who is in this group for qualifying purposes. Qualifying runs consist of two laps, with the fastest lap setting a team's time. The Nextel Cup Series qualifying record at Pocono is 172.533 mph, set by Kasey Kahne in 2004.

The Nextel Cup Series points race saw quite a shake-up after New Hampshire. Jimmie Johnson extended his lead over Matt Kenseth to 68 after his ninth-place finish at Loudon. Johnson's fifteenth top-ten finish is tops in the series. Jeff Burton holds the third spot, Kyle Busch rose four spots to fourth on his NHIS win, and Mark Martin rounds out the top five this week. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. dropped to seventh when an engine failure relegated him to 43rd place, and Greg Biffle is back in the top ten after Tony Stewart's early crash dropped him to eleventh.

What To Expect
Pocono is a funny animal-half road course and half oval, it's all about setup-and it's nearly impossible to get a racecar perfect through all three unique corners. Teams will usually try to set up for turns two and three, two of the toughest corners anywhere on the Cup circuit. Turn two-the Tunnel Turn-is especially difficult since the infield access tunnel that gives it its name also creates a large bump in the racing surface.

There certainly can be long green flag runs at Pocono, so watch for teams to employ a pit strategy similar to the one they'll use on road courses. Instead of hoping that the yellow doesn't fly after a pit stop, teams hope that it does, because pitting under green at Pocono will not leave most teams a lap behind the leaders. Speeding on pit road and the penalties that go with it plagued teams here in June, possibly costing a few of them a shot at victory, and the pit road configuration may be a contributing factor, so more penalties may be an issue.

Also, tires have been an issue in the past-and when a tire goes down in the wrong place, the resulting crash is very hard-but the tracks' lack of banking should keep most incidents from becoming multi-car melees. 500 miles here is also usually the cause of several engine failure attritions, although this has been remedied to a large extent by NASCAR's mandated gear ratio, which eliminates shifting and makes the race easier on engines and transmissions.

How important is qualifying at Pocono? Since the track opened in 1974, 72% of race winners have started in the top ten. But teams must be careful. Overdriving a car here can have disastrous results for everyone except the backup car, which will then have its day in the sun.

Who to Watch
It's hard to choose anyone but rookie Denny Hamlin as a favorite. Despite the rear end of his car being virtually held together by duct tape after an early tire failure and spin, Hamlin dominated to win the June race at Pocono handily. Point leader Jimmie Johnson leads all drivers with five or more starts at Pocono in the last five years with an average finish of 8.33, and Johnson has a pole, two wins, three top-five, and five top-ten finishes in nine starts. Johnson had a top ten in June despite a pit road speeding penalty. Kurt Busch won this race last year and needs a quick turnaround if he is going to contend for the championship this year. Johnson's teammate, Brian Vickers, always seems to run well at Pocono, particularly in qualifying-he's never started outside the top five.

Carl Edwards has a Pocono win in June of '05 and has momentum on his side after a second-place finish at New Hampshire. His teammate, Mark Martin has more top five finishes at Pocono than any active driver, including six second-place runs-but no wins. Martin would love to add this trophy in his last shot. Jeff Gordon has led 841 laps in 27 Pocono races, more than any active driver, and is tied among full-time active drivers with Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte for most wins with three apiece. For a dark horse, look at Labonte or Jamie McMurray, who quietly has top ten starts in the last four races at Pocono, and who really needs to have a strong day.

Did You Know:
-That Ken Schrader leads all active drivers with five Pocono poles? There also has not been a repeat pole winner at the track in the last nineteen races.

-Only two drivers (Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte) had more than 50 starts at Pocono? Kyle Petty is next closest to that mark at 48 and counting.

-That the Nextel Cup garage is named the Adam Petty Garage, while the ARCA garage at the track bears the name of Blaise Alexander? Both drivers ran at Pocono in the ARCA series before their untimely deaths in 2000 and 2001 respectively.

You Don't Say…
"I really love racing at Pocono. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the circuit. We’ve actually had a lot of success there over the years, despite the fact that we have never been able to get a win there. We’ve finished second five or six times there over the years, but we just haven’t been able to finish the deal. Still, it’s one of my favorite places. It’s kind of funny, because I hate Martinsville with a passion and yet we’ve won there a couple of times, so I guess what you like really doesn’t matter that much. We were off last month at Pocono, so it will be up to us to make sure we get back on track and get back to what worked so well there last year. We’ll be looking forward to going back and seeing what we can do." -veteran driver Mark Martin on Pocono, where he has finished second six times but never won

"I'm not sure it's really changed. It's just knowledge. When you have knowledge and experience in those areas, you just know how to deal with it, I guess. I just take that experience and know how bad that pit in my stomach is going to hurt and know how bad the pressure is going to feel on sleepless nights, how important it is to keep the team together and keep everybody focused, and just all the challenges that come along. I've seen it a couple of times now and I'll be able to recognize things and address them and not let the pressure get to me as much." -point leader Jimmie Johnson on handling the pressure of a title run and if he handles it differently than he did in past years

"This is probably 10 Daytona 500s going into one weekend here. I'm definitely excited." -driver Kurt Busch on his upcoming wedding next Thursday to Eva Bryan

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Contact Amy Henderson

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Want to know more about Amy or see an archive of all of her articles? Check out her bio page for more information.