“Staying out! Staying out!”
That will be crew chief Shane Wilson’s battle cry over the radio to Kevin Harvick in the closing laps of the Pocono 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday.
After a face-lift to the 17-year-old pavement, the 2.5-mile track is so smooth that teams are seeing no decrease in the lap times of their drivers, and the speeds are up dramatically. Therefore, teams will not feel the necessity to change tires if it means the difference between maintaining track position versus going to the pits. And if drivers are forced to pit, especially under green-flag conditions, it will be for fuel only.
Things will certainly be different Sunday at Pocono than they have been in the past.
“There’s hardly any falloff and really good grip,” said Wilson, crew chief for Kevin Harvick of Richard Childress Racing. “We were pretty well balanced. We ran a full fuel run and it was only about four-tenths (of a second off) by the time we actually ran out of gas. We’ll see how the race will be, but it’s definitely going to be more like a road course where you don’t have any tire wear. We’ll definitely be figuring out when we can make it to the end, then try to get on pit road. It will be interesting. Hopefully, it won’t play out like that, but the chances are pretty good that it will.”
Historically, Wilson said, a car would run a 54-second lap in race trim but then slow to a 57.5-second lap throughout the course a fuel run (about 75 miles).
“A lot, a lot of falloff,” Wilson said. “If you’re here watching it at the track, it’s a lot more exciting race than watching it on TV because you would have someone take off (from the pack) and then maybe someone that would run fast on old tires and it would kind of juggle the field up a little bit. But now it will be about who is fast and not making mistakes and losing your track position.”
Mike Ford experienced tremendous success at Pocono Raceway as Denny Hamlin’s crew chief. In the pair’s first nine starts on the Tricky Triangle, they won four races together. Ford, now working with Richard Petty Motorsports' Aric Almirola, won’t take a new approach to the track. His strategy is the same: qualify and race well.
“You have the grip levels up the speeds up, but it’s still the same track,” Ford said. “You have the same issues in (Turn) 1 that you’ve had in the past. That corner takes a little bit different approach than (Turns) 2 and 3 do. It’s very similar to what it’s always been, but the speeds are up.
“This is going to be more of a single-file type race with faster speeds. Aero is going to play more of a role, so track position will be even more important than it’s ever been. The physics of it — you can’t change that. It’s all about getting track position and trying to keep it.”
Brad Keselowski’s crew chief, Paul Wolfe, led the No. 2 Penske Racing team to victory the last time NASCAR visitied Pocono, in August. However, with the new surface, Wolfe entered this week with a clean slate.
“Unfortunately, it seems that everywhere we win they change the track,” joked Wolfe, whose driver also won at Kansas and Bristol last year. “It’s totally starting over — not only from the repave, but from the new rule with the side skirts has changed our setups. So, really, what we did here last year, we’re totally different now.
“Obviously, the shorter race doesn’t do anything but help from (a) brake durability standpoint and engine-wise. That’s small compared to the new surface and the tires that Goodyear brought. Definitely a different approach, the tires don’t have any falloff . . . so it will be interesting to see what strategies happen on Sunday.”
And Wolfe’s strategy is simple: Get up front and stay there. Wilson agrees. And the front of the pack should be the safest place to be.
“Once it gets to about 30 laps to go, there will be all kinds of crazy stuff going on out there,” Wilson said.
Chad Johnston will not be on Martin Truex Jr.’s pit box this weekend because the crew chief's wife is expecting the couple's first child.
So Scott Miller, Michael Waltrip Racing executive vice president of competition and former crew chief, will lead the No. 56 team, which is currently sixth in the points standings.
Truex acknowledges “it’s been different” not having Johnston around. But he joked that the squad has experience operating without Johnston, who was suspended for the final four races of last season after a rules infraction.
"He's really been kind of the heart and soul of this team for close to the past year,” Truex said. “But we did get some practice at the end of last year not having him around when he was suspended. We're kind of playing it out the same way we did then. Everything has gone good. The guys have done a nice job of stepping up and getting the job done the past few days and we've had a good few days of testing, a good practice today and looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”
1: Point lead by Greg Biffle over teammate Matt Kenseth, but as the Biff says, “It’s more than what Tony (Stewart) won it by last year. He won it by zero.”
43: Laps short of leading 1,000 at Pocono for Jeff Gordon. However, his 957 laps led is the current record.
5.9: Average starting position by Denny Hamlin — best among current drivers. Hamlin’s average driver rating is 118.6, also tops on the tour. He will qualify 36th on Saturday.
Matt Kenseth on whether his team will develop cabin fever after five days at Pocono:
"I’d be more concerned about my team if we were in Las Vegas for five days than Pocono. I don’t know what are they going to do here? Hike themselves to death?"