LONG POND, Pa. – Here's a twist: Once the track's harshest critic, points leader Greg Biffle is raving about Pocono Raceway.
Biffle famously complained two years ago "they're going to kill somebody there," if needed safety improvements weren't made to the track.
Pocono listened to Biffle and the rest of the NASCAR community. The facility completed a multimillion-dollar project in 2010 that made significant safety upgrades, including a soft-wall barrier and catch fence. The track was repaved this year for the first time since 1995 and that led to blistering track-record speeds on the triangle.
Pocono also cut the race from 500 miles to 400. Biffle said "excitement" was back at Pocono. He described the new-look track as "glass smooth at 200 mph." That could lead to a fun race Sunday.
"I'm really excited about what Pocono has been able to do here," he said.
Kasey Kahne was involved in a huge scare in the 2010 race when he lost control of his car in the grass, went airborne and into the trees that line the track. Had the car sailed higher, Kahne would have flipped out of the track.
Elliott Sadler walked away from a frightening wreck later that year when his car smashed the inside wall. He came away with a sore chest and stomach.
Accidents are part of the sport. Drivers at least feel they'll be better protected when they get tangled at Pocono.
"The track feels really good," Jeff Gordon said. "I haven't heard a single complaint."
HENDRICK HEATS UP: Clint Bowyer knows it's time to worry. Hendrick Motorsports is heating up.
Bowyer, 10th in the Sprint Cup standings, said he was "absolutely" concerned that Jimmie Johnson and two of the other Hendrick teams are on a hot streak heading into the summer races.
Jimmie Johnson won last week at Dover. Johnson won at Darlington Raceway and Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600. Johnson also won the non-points All-Star race. Count the All-Star race and that's a dominant four-race winning streak for NASCAR's top organization.
"When they get on a roll, they've proved they can ride that wave for a while," he said. "I think they've certainly found something here and found some speed in the race cars."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is third in the standings and Johnson fifth. Kahne is 14th, but has that all-important victory to help secure a spot in the Chase. Jeff Gordon is stuck in 21st and needs wins in a hurry if he's going to contend for his fifth Cup championship.
Gordon, who had a strong car at Dover, said the entire organization is fueled with momentum entering Pocono.
"I think we've really gotten our act together," he said. "We didn't start the season on top of our game, but, in great fashion for Hendrick Motorsports, everybody has been working really hard ... to try and find a little bit more speed and grip in the cars."
Gordon won Pocono's June race last year and shares the track record with five career victories. He finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven Pocono races.
Gordon is winless through 13 races this season after taking the checkered flag three times last year.
"It's a great accomplishment, and as it's gotten less and less over the years, it means even that much more," he said. "You realize just how hard it really is to accomplish."
OT IN POCONO: It's overtime in Pocono.
Drivers had reason to celebrate when Pocono shaved 100 miles off its Cup race. It was short-lived when they learned they'd have to spend two extra days in the mountains for testing because of a track repave. NASCAR hit Pocono for testing Wednesday and Thursday and that caused some grumbling in the garage.
Outside of Daytona, teams are rarely sequestered at one track for five days.
"I'd be more concerned about my team if we were in (Las) Vegas for five days more than Pocono," former Cup champion Matt Kenseth said, laughing. "I don't know what they're going to do here. Hike themselves to death? I'm not too worried about these guys. There's not a lot going on."
SHORTER RACE: For decades, the first question drivers had to answer at Pocono was: "Should this race be 400 miles?"
At last, it will be.
Pocono Raceway CEO Brandon Igdalsky said it was a mutual decision among the track, NASCAR and TV partners — along with input from fans — to slice the race from a tedious 500 miles to 400 on the 2½-mile triangle track.
Pocono founder Joseph "Doc" Mattioli was long a staunch defender of the supersized race. The decision to switch didn't necessarily go down easy with Mattioli.
"Hell no," a laughing Igdalsky said.
But Mattioli, who died in January, eventually agreed and both Pocono Sprint Cup races will be run at 400 miles.
Drivers applauded the change.
"Five hundred miles here just for some reason just seems to get drug-out and drawn-out," defending Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "I think you're still going to have the same quality of racing, just you don't have to wait that extra hour for that exciting conclusion."