_Editor’s Note: Bryan Keith is off this week. Look for him to return next Tuesday; for this edition of 5 Points, Danny Peters fills in._
It was a beautiful day in the picturesque Pocono Mountains on Sunday, if a little sunny for someone like me with the complexion and skin tone of a ghost. But for NASCAR fans, the sunny disposition was plastered on many faces, whether at the track or on the couch; TNT’s six-race coverage got underway while, mercifully, the bombastic FOX Sports was finally consigned to the rear-view mirror. All told, it was a fine day out at the raceway accompanied by some excellent on-track action, which is, without further ado, exactly where we’ll begin this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder.
*ONE: Pocono: A Track Rejuvenated*
You never quite know what you’ll get with a repave or a reconfiguration, but without a doubt the new pavement at Pocono had a hugely beneficial effect on the racing pretty much from the drop of the first green flag. One hundred less miles — 400, not 500 as has been the traditional distance at Pocono – was a factor in the quality of the action as well with the race being completed in just a smidge over three hours. Added to that, we didn’t get any rain, despite one or two threatening clouds. Just how good was the competition? Sunday saw 19 lead changes, one more than last year when the race was its original, 200-lap scheduled distance. Mark Martin said it best when he didn’t think it would be possible to have a race this good, this quickly on new asphalt.
In the past, plenty of fans, media types and drivers (and I’ll admit, me as well) have been critical of the only triangular-shaped 2.5-mile track on the circuit, but this Sunday, it was just about perfect. From a personal point of view, I would also like to comment on how friendly and accommodating all the staff were – at least those that I spoke to and I can’t finish this point without a shout-out to Patti Angeloni, a long time senior staffer at Pocono who, as always, it was a pleasure to see on Sunday. I look forward to coming back to the tricky triangle soon and I have to feel I won’t be alone in thinking that. Especially from a driver’s standpoint; in August, they’ll be spending three days on-track instead of five.
*TWO: Jo-Lo’s Biggest Win Ever*
I was standing right behind Denny Hamlin’s pits as Joey Logano’s bright orange Home Depot Toyota took the checkers and it was noticeable that all the crew celebrated their teammate’s win with some gusto. Fifth-place finisher Hamlin also took to Twitter, post-race, to make much the same point saying: “Awesome job to my teammate @joeylogano. He drove a flawless race. That’s big for that 20 team. Congrats!!!”
Now, I’m not one for too much hyperbole but big may, in this case, be something of an understatement. The kid with the “sliced bread moniker” that has somewhat haunted him, especially given his relatively lackluster Cup career so far, picked up just a second win in 125 career starts. Yes, he’d won before at Loudon but that was weather-related in a car that was clearly not the class of the field. Those “miracle” moments do happen, sure, but no one can have any complaints about this victory with Jo-Lo leading a race-best 49 of 160 laps.
With rumors swirling and multiplying about where Logano would end up next season (his contract at Joe Gibbs Racing is up) this victory might just be the launching point for a long and successful Cup career. Of course, the opposite is also true – and this win might be just one brief high point – but I can’t help but feel he’ll kick it into high gear from here and challenge for what had seemed like an unlikely Chase berth. Right now, Logano is tied for the second “wild card” spot with Ryan Newman and there are some tracks ahead (Kentucky, Loudon) which could favor him. Should the young driver make the postseason, you’d have to think that’ll lead to job security – somewhere.
*THREE: Will Mark Martin Ever Get Another Win?*
Future Hall of Famer Mark Martin’s 40th and most recent trip to Victory Lane came back in September of 2009 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway some 92 races ago (for Martin, at least, who is running a partial schedule this year.) As the laps wound down on Sunday and he took the lead, that was pretty much the moment I said out loud, “I can’t believe I’m going to see Mark Martin win this race!” I was immediately berated by the Logano fan who stood next to me.
A lap later, Logano’s bump and run all but finished Martin’s shot at a heartwarming, morale-boosting victory and I felt a little foolish. But a couple of minutes after the end of the race, Martin strode past me on the way to his golf cart and trip back to the motor coach lot and it was interesting to note how fresh he looked. I was tired just watching and there was a 53-year-old, just out of the car, looking like he was off for a Sunday stroll. I commiserated him on just failing to win and, as you would expect from a class act, he politely acknowledged me. I’ve said this one before, I’m sure I’ll say it again (I do get repetitious) but the man is a genuine legend – as humble as he is talented. I, for one, hope we see at least one, and preferably multiple, wins for Martin before he finally hangs up his gloves. At this point, 23rd in the standings and just ten behind Jeff Gordon, despite missing three races it certainly doesn’t seem like he’s slowing down anytime soon.
*FOUR: Twelve Pre-Chase Wins Up For Grabs*
And since I’m on a roll with the “win” theme, my penultimate point this week is about the critical nature of victories in the next 12 races. If Brad Keselowski (2 wins) and Tony Stewart (2 wins) stay on the right side of the top 10, the race for 11th and 12th spots will become significantly wilder, with one victory putting a driver in “wild card” contention. For the likes of Carl Edwards, currently in a zero for 47-race slump, the value of a victory cannot be overstated. The final two Chase berths will, without a doubt, be occupied by race winners; if you’re on the wrong side of the top-10 divide without a “W” after the Richmond cutoff race, you’ll be toast. And with the vagaries of the upcoming schedule including both the road courses, Indianapolis, two trips to the as yet unknown quantity of the new Michigan surface and another swing at Pocono, much is still possible. Expect to see the gambles increase week by week as teams fight to lock down those all-important victories to secure those vital Chase spots. Edwards isn’t the only one who should feel a little on edge; Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex, Jr. and Clint Bowyer are among those winless and sitting inside the top 10 in points (Junior, currently second has a bit more of a cushion).
*FIVE: What to expect at Michigan?*
If there would be two words to describe Michigan this weekend, after the recent repave, then those words would be *super fast.*
22,000 tons of asphalt was used to repave the 2-mile, D-shaped oval that has hosted some 85 Cup races going all the way back to 1969 when none other than Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough won the inaugural event. This Thursday will see another test session so we’ll have a better idea of what sort of speeds we’ll see on Sunday, but at the initial two-day test in April speeds were topping out in the 215 MPH range.
“This place is fast. Fast, fast,” said Juan Pablo Montoya of his experience.
“Probably, I would say, fast to too fast,” echoed Matt Kenseth. “I believe we saw 215 or 216 on the straightaways.”
Uh-oh. Will too speedy lead to single-file competition, or even serious safety concerns? NASCAR, for one claims restrictor plates won’t be used but we’ll just have to wait and see. I can say this much: after one of the best races of the year at Pocono, here’s hoping it’s another terrific race this Sunday because let’s be fair, the sport really needs some good on-track momentum right now.
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