Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Mailbox: Can the Next Gen Car Save Pocono?

It has the reputation for being NASCAR’s most boring track, so is Pocono Raceway going to drop off the schedule soon? – Faren B., Birmingham, Mich.

One of four tracks on the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series schedule not owned by NASCAR or SMI, Pocono Raceway has been rumored on the chopping block for a long time.

Its unique 2.5-mile layout features three turns cribbed from other racetracks (the defunct Trenton Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Milwaukee Mile) and so each end is completely different, as is the middle for good measure. 

Despite Pocono’s reputation for hosting some of the most suspenseful fuel-mileage races of the Gen-6 era, the Tricky Triangle hasn’t offered the kind of side-by-side battles for the lead that fans and NASCAR want to see. Following through the long, flat, fast turns is difficult in dirty air, and the field generally spreads out until a caution for someone’s brake failure sets up a crazy five-wide restart along the longest front straightaway in NASCAR (the Tricky Triangle’s hypotenuse).

In the last 15 years, Pocono has also attracted attention for being behind the times when it comes to safety. The track only installed catch fence along the back straightaway after Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler nearly left the property in separate accidents in 2010, and Justin Wilson’s fatal accident during a 2015 NTT IndyCar Series race followed by Robert Wickens’ spinal injury three years later has lent Pocono a grim reputation. 

Pocono is the last family-owned facility on the Cup schedule and one of the largest. Maintenance is difficult and upkeep is expensive. Dropping down to one race weekend, and now one race per year, won’t help. 

It seems like NASCAR has been dragging its feet about taking Pocono off the schedule ever since 2011. Both Cup races were reduced from 500 to 400 miles in 2012, and the track was the site of the first-ever planned Cup doubleheader weekend in 2020. 

The Saturday race in 2021 was the least-watched Cup race in network television history, and so for 2022 the track will see just a single 400-mile Cup event. 

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But Pocono fans adore their home track. This weekend’s race is one of only four given to the major population area of the Northeast. Pocono is a two-hour drive from New York and Philadelphia, and it’s near Scranton and Allentown, Pa. Remove Pocono from the schedule and there’s a big triangular hole between Dover Motor Speedway, Watkins Glen International and New Hampshire Motor Speedway, all of which have only a single race date. 

The difference is NASCAR now has more options than ever to replace it. VP of Racing Development and Strategy Ben Kennedy has gone on the record saying six road/street courses is the number NASCAR is happy with, so I don’t think it’ll go full Champ Car on the street courses, but once the initial three-year contract is up in Chicago, NASCAR could easily bump that date to a Chicago/Milwaukee area permanent track and set up a street race in Philadelphia. 

Pocono is definitely under pressure to deliver, but there’s one thing that can save the track: the Next Gen car. 

Aric Almirola, who participated in a tire test at the track in May, told NASCAR.com ahead of this weekend’s action, “Pocono is gonna be somewhat of a wild card race … going through three different corners, trying to keep this car and the aero platform correct … There’s just so many variables that make Pocono unique, and it takes somewhat of a compromise. Whoever figures out that compromise best, not only as a driver but from a setup standpoint … is gonna win.”

With only one Pocono race on the schedule, a completely new race car, and no other track even remotely like it (now that the Indianapolis race is on the road course), nobody has any idea how to prepare for Pocono, leaving the door wide open for smaller teams to nail the balance purely by chance. 

Combined with the less-disrupted air flowing off the rear diffuser and symmetrical rear quarters, and how good the racing was last week at the similarly flat and fast New Hampshire track, Pocono is going to surprise us all. 

At least it’s not out of the question. Who would have predicted the best races of 2022 so far would be Auto Club Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway?

Why does the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series regular season end in Pocono in July?  – Jonathan L., St. Petersburg, Fla. 

The short, snarky answer: because it’s the eighth-to-last race of the season. 

The longer answer: when NASCAR implemented its first playoffs format at the end of 2003, it didn’t change the schedule. The inaugural NASCAR playoffs just took place over the final 10 races already scheduled for 2004. Nearly two decades later, six of those original tracks remain in the Cup playoffs. 

It was the same thing when the NASCAR Xfinity and Truck series adopted playoffs in 2016. Rather than construct the playoff schedule specifically, NASCAR just kept the last seven races of each series and made them into the postseason. 

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Yes, the restraints on the schedule are generally a bit stricter toward the end of the year. There’s a reason we can’t have the finale at Michigan International Speedway, for example. In fact, for the lower series the restrictions are even greater, as they generally have to follow the Cup Series around the country as companion races. 

Recently, the Truck Series in particular has seen a lot of change. It has been since 2017 that the regular-season finale was held at the same track in consecutive years (Chicagoland Speedway). 

Running a whole 13 fewer races than the premier series, there tends to be larger holes in the Truck calendar, so despite having only a seven-race playoffs, the Truck playoffs start early. Really early. In 2021, 2019 and 2018, the Truck regular-season finale was held in August. This is the first time it will be in July. 

NASCAR is put in a difficult position here. If the Truck and Xfinity playoffs were to line up directly with the Cup ones (seven weeks on, three weeks off each within Cup’s 10-week postseason), the messaging could be clearer and fans could follow all three championships at the same time. The problem is that there would be a lot less Truck racing the rest of the year, and fans might lose interest in the series when it wasn’t racing as regularly in the summer.

July is too early to end a regular season when the playoffs won’t wrap up until mid-November. I also respect the fact that at least NASCAR made that choice with intention, so we get to see that sweet Truck action spread out more or less evenly across the year.

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