Rain might be in the forecast throughout the weekend at Pocono Raceway but nothing can ruin the vibe that the 2.5-mile racetrack has created for NASCAR’s XFINITY Series.
This weekend marks the inaugural contest for the sport’s second-tier division at Pocono Raceway, a track that has been open to the sport’s premier series since 1974. In doing so, NASCAR took away the standalone event at Chicagoland Speedway, usually held in mid-June to make room on the schedule. The decision came as a controversial one, considering Pocono is similar to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a track that has received much criticism for its XFINITY Series event.
Will that mean tomorrow’s inaugural edition turns into a snoozer? Series regulars say absolutely not. As rain became a “Debby Downer” throughout the day Friday, the XFINITY Series field kept smiles on their faces as drivers explained their excitement at getting to tackle the triangular track for the first time.
Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Brennan Poole is one of those hungry to race here. Poole has four starts in the ARCA Series at Pocono, leading 161 of 239 laps in which he’s competed. That includes a win in 2012 and no finish worse than fifth, a level of experience others in the field won’t have once the green flag drops.
“When I first pulled out here [on Thursday], I just knew the track so well that I just went and drove, had fun and enjoyed it,” Poole said. “I know how to race here. I know where to make moves and where I can’t make moves. I think the extra experience is really important, and it’ll just help me in the race.
“I know some people complain about the Cup side [at Pocono], but the Cup races for me over the years have been some of my favorites to watch every year. The XFINITY cars suck up like crazy in the draft. I think you’re going to see some crazy stuff happen during the first few laps on the frontstretch. As things get spread out, it will get a little tougher because it’s really tough to pass here. Turn 1 has some banking to it, and that’s where you have to make the majority of your passes. But turn 3 is just so flat that you can’t do anything.”
Last year’s race at Indianapolis saw eight lead changes, including Kyle Busch’s last-lap pass for the win after taking the lead from Ryan Blaney. NASCAR hopes it will see a higher level of competition here. While the environment surrounding Indianapolis is dark, considering it replaced a favored short track — Lucas Oil Raceway — Pocono has a chance to write its own story. Chicagoland struggled to gain a foothold in the series with its standalone events and drivers are eager to give this track a chance.
“It is definitely different from everything else,” said Daniel Suarez, who is making his Pocono Raceway debut. “The first corner — there is nothing similar to that corner. [Turns] 2 and 3, they are a little similar to Indy. Indy is on my list of favorite racetracks. I really like this place. I’m still learning, but so far, it’s been good. I really think we have some work to do, but I feel pretty good.”
With the tapered spacer on the XFINITY Series engines, the draft will be a major key come Saturday’s Pocono Green 200. According to Poole, cars have been sucking up to each other on the frontstretch, which is the longest in NASCAR. Additionally, JD Motorsports’ Ross Chastain, who has two top 10s in two Truck Series races at Pocono, believes that with the high levels of downforce, passing will be incredibly difficult entering the corners.
“I think we are going to race really well,” Chastain said after clocking in top-20 times in both practices Thursday. “[The cars] sound bad; I know that. We’re only turning about 7,900 RPMs when normally, we shoot for about 8,400. We’re not shifting, so if you get loose off turn 3, it’s going to be hard to recover. We don’t have a lot of torque to help that. I don’t think it’ll be the greatest race ever or in the highlight reel, but it’s good that we’re coming here now.”
As the XFINITY Series grid prepares to hit the Tricky Triangle come Saturday afternoon, drivers will have two fewer practices to work with. Friday’s rain canceled both scheduled sessions, forcing teams to head into qualifying Saturday morning based on Thursday’s tests. That makes it harder to predict what type of race this will turn out to be; however, at least one driver has already drawn his own conclusions.
“I love this place already,” exclaimed points leader Suarez. “We’re going to get along very well.”
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