The Frontstretch: Four Burning Questions In Pocono: Fresh Pavement And Logano's Time To Shine by Matt Stallknecht -- Friday June 7, 2013

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Pocono Raceway is the site of this coming Sunday’s edition of the 2013 Sprint Cup Series, and after a wild race in Dover, the series looks to carry some positive momentum into the scenic mountain paradise of Northeastern Pennsylvania. The track was repaved over the winter of 2011, and in somewhat of a twist, the fresh pavement actually led to improved racing, an utter rarity in an era in which track repaves usually ruin racetracks. On the points front, the continued inability of Toyota Racing Development to build durable engines led to large drops in the standings for ace drivers Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. after Dover, thus prompting TRD to order a parts upgrade for all of their engines heading into the rest of the season. TRD’s ability to rebound after a season’s worth of engine failures, along with the wild card that is the new Pocono surface, lead our slate of questions this week as we gear up for the Party in the Poconos 400.

1. Will the new Pocono surface still put on a good show?

Last year heading into this very race, there was great concern in the NASCAR community that the repave done over the winter of 2011 was going to hurt the racing at Pocono. Considering the racing at Pocono was putrid to begin with prior to the repave, such concerns were rather justified. Some figured there would no passing at all and that the race would be among the worst of the year. Oh, how wrong we all were.

Joey Logano won at Pocono last year. Can he and the No. 22 put all the pieces together to get a win there this year?

As it turned out, the new surface was exactly the fix needed to spice up the racing at Pocono. The race saw a respectable 19 lead changes and featured a much greater assortment of action than the track had seen in years past, and it all came to a crescendo in the final laps when drivers Joey Logano and Mark Martin staged a spirited multi-lap duel for the win that saw Logano come out on top. All told, Pocono was hailed as the most improved track on the circuit from 2011, a much needed indictment for a track that has long been viewed as one of the worst on the circuit.

The question of course is: will the quality of racing remain high? I believe it’s fair to say that it will. The surface has a year of age on it, meaning that the groove should widen out a bit to allow for more side by side racing, but the track will still be plenty smooth enough to allow the drivers to race hard like they did last year. In addition, the new Gen 6 cars, what with their massive spoilers and grip-friendly downforce numbers, are absolutely tailor made for this style of racetrack. The grip in the corners will allow drivers to maintain high speeds on corner exit, and the spoiler will make the draft extremely effective on Pocono’s patented long straightaways. All told, this combination of factors ought to lead to a very competitive race with a level of passing that may surprise some race fans.

2. Will tire blowouts be an issue this weekend?

We’ve seen it happen on multiple race tracks this year. With the increased speeds of the Gen 6 car, more and more pressure is being exerted on the right front tires of the cars, and as teams continue to push the envelope in terms of setup tricks and raw speed with this generation of race cars, tire blowouts have and will become commonplace, especially on flat and smooth tracks.

Here’s the bad news: Pocono is the biggest, baddest, smoothest, fastest and flattest race track in all the land. If teams were having right front tire troubles going 170 mph at Phoenix, what on Earth is going to happen when these very same cars enter Turn 1 at Pocono at over 210 mph? Blowouts, that’s what is going to happen, and you can be rather certain that crew chiefs around the garage are sweating about this very issue heading into this weekend. There were signs of tire cording last year at the repaved Pocono facility under the less RF-intensive Gen 5 car, and although it didn’t present a major issue in last year’s event, the tendency for the Gen 6 car to shred tires on less RF-intensive tracks this year yields great concern for this weekend’s race.

If there are issues that Goodyear has to address, look for them to be addressed on Friday. Teams will be scouring their tires with a fine-toothed comb looking for any signs of cording (which, to those not familiar with the term, is essentially when a hard-compound tire begins to wear down to the cord as a result of excess on-track grip, usually facilitated by freshly repaved tracks), and if cording is apparent, look for Goodyear to make a change. With the speeds these teams are running, Goodyear and NASCAR can’t take any chances. If there is even a whiff of tire problems, a proactive approach to fixing them will need to be implemented as quickly as possible.

3. Has TRD really figured out their engine problems?

Toyota Racing Development really has to be kicking itself at the moment. So far in 2013, their across the board failures in the engine department have led to: the loss of a Daytona 500 win, the loss of a Coca-Cola 600 win, and a huge points penalty for the most successful team in its stable (JGR). At what point does TRD step back and realize that change must happen before it’s too late? The folks at TRD apparently came to that very conclusion after Dover, where TRD-engine foibles led to early exits for two of the fastest cars in the race (Truex and Kenseth).

In an effort to prevent these problems from happening in the future, TRD released a statement earlier this week which stated that they have a new engine package in place that features “new upgrades” aimed at increasing engine durability. Here’s what that really means: they are detuning their engines to yield less horsepower in return for more long-term durability. That’s good news for the field, as all of that crazy extra horsepower in the TRD-powered cars has been partly why those teams have been so dominant this year. But in most races, that horsepower has come at the cost of durability. As such, in an effort to improve the durability of their engines, TRD may have inadvertently leveled the Cup Series playing field in the process.

Granted, there is no guarantee that TRD actually detuned their engines, but it seems awfully odd that this “parts upgrade” came a week after yet another embarrassment for the organization. It seems far more likely that they detuned their engines as a quick fix until they can figure out a way to pump out the extra horsepower without sacrificing durability. Either way, the ramifications of this announcement will undoubtedly bear watching over the next few weeks as JGR and MWR deal with the “upgrades.”

4. Could Joey Logano vault himself into Wild Card contention this weekend?

At first glance, Joey Logano’s 2013 season does not appear to be too terribly impressive. Sitting a distant 18th in points, one would think Logano is not performing at a very high level. However, when you look deeper into the numbers, Logano’s season starts to look an awful lot more impressive. Logano has 4 top 5s this season, which puts him on pace to shatter his personal record for top 5s in a single season. He is also tied for 10th among drivers in top 10 finishes this season, of which he has 5. Also a penalty at Texas robbed the #22 team of 25 points, effectively killing the momentum the team had at the time and leaving the organization scrambling to get back on track. If you remove the points penalty from the equation, Logano would actually be sitting 12th in points. Then if you factor out weeks in which bad luck or mechanical gremlins (such as Talladega) ended Logano’s day early, it is feasible to assume Logano could even be sitting in the top 10 in the point standings.

Luckily for Logano, due to NASCAR’s wild card rule, he and his team are still very much eligible for the Chase, but if they have any shot at making it, a strong run this weekend is a must. Let’s not forget that Logano won this race one year ago for Joe Gibbs Racing, and has generally performed well at Pocono in the past. On top of that, the #22 team has performed well thus far on downforce intensive tracks, delivering finishes of 3rd, 5th and 5th at Auto Club, Texas, and Charlotte. Entering the event coming off back to back top 10 runs at Charlotte and Dover with a former Pocono winner behind the wheel, the #22 team has to view this weekend as a huge opportunity.

All told, this weekend is something of a must-win for Joey Logano. He has the momentum, team, and skill to pull it off, and as such there is really no reason why this team shouldn’t perform. While it’s probably too early to say his season rests on this race, a win for Joey Logano on Sunday would put him directly in Chase contention, and with wins difficult to come by in this series, it’s paramount for drivers to capitalize on their best race tracks. Pocono is Logano’s best track, so watch for him to have a “win or bust” mentality in the Party in the Poconos 400.

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Steve K
06/07/2013 01:29 AM
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I think you forgot that Indianapolis Motor Speedway is really “the biggest, baddest, smoothest, fastest and flattest race track in all the land,” diamond grinding and all.

Matt Stallknecht
06/07/2013 01:41 AM
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You could certainly debate that either way Steve. I give the edge to Pocono in this scenario because corner entry speeds are still higher and because it has a fresher repave.

All that being said, Indianapolis is still very much a tire wear nightmare, to your point.

Annie
06/07/2013 02:13 AM
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That you for pointing out the strong season Logano and his team have had. Nothing so far this year has been of driver error and if not for mechanical issues or getting involved in others drama he would be well into the top 10 crowd concerning the stupid “Chase”.

Don
06/07/2013 09:02 AM
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Ah, yes…Pocono….

And the start of Nascar in the summer….

See you folks in the fall when the ever-exciting Chase points fairy brings us all back to watch Jimmie Johnson and team Hendrick take the lead.

Whoo!

DoninAjax
06/07/2013 08:21 PM
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The Gen-5 cars were a cure for insomnia.
The Gen-6 cars aren’t much better.
Maybe they should go back to Gen-4 cars.
Maybe they should go back to Grand Nationals.
Maybe it’s the drivers.