Pocono A Study In Compromise

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series, 1.5-mile tracks aside, is filled with a variety of facilities that range from the flat short track at Martinsville, Va. to the twisting road course at Sonoma, Calif. to the high-banked superspeedway at Talladega, Ala.

But there’s nothing like Pocono Raceway, site of this weekend’s Pocono 500. Qualifying is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. Friday, when drivers will try to master Pocono’s unique three-turn, 2.5-mile layout.

“The term difficult does not even begin to describe Pocono,” said Bobby Labonte, who won on the track last year. “As racers, we are always working to try and find that ‘perfect’ setup that always seems to elude us. At Pocono, you are never going to find it no matter how much you test up there and how long you have raced up there.

“With three distinctly different turns, and each one having different degrees of banking, you have to pick two of them to set up for and basically sacrifice the third because you are never going to get the car to handle real good in all three.”

Turn 1 is the shortest but has the most banking. Turn 2 is perhaps the toughest in all of NASCAR. Turn 3 is the flattest but leads to the long frontstretch. And don’t forget about the long Long Pond Straight – a little more than a half-mile – and the short North Straight.

A lap around Pocono is a little bit like one of those rides at the carnival: Nothing is ever the same.

“Pocono is a tough track because the corners and straightaways are all different,” Dale Jarrett said. “The frontstretch at Pocono is probably the longest straight of all the places we race. Turn 1 comes up while we’re going 204-205 mph, and you have to shift gears to get ready to get into that turn, which is fun.

“Turns 2 and 3 are banked nearly half of what Turn 1 is banked. When you go into Turn 3, that’s fairly flat and sharp, and you end up driving it almost the same as you would at a dirt track getting in and out of the gas to get through it. It’s just a place that’s equally tough on drivers and equipment.”

Like Labonte said, setting up a car for Pocono is an study in compromise. Set up for Turn 1, and you’ll stink in Turn 3. Set up for Turn 3, and you’ll stink in Turn 1. Set up for Turn 2, and you might stink in Turns 1 and 3. And we’re not even talking about gear rations or the engine yet.

“You just gotta have a good car,” Atwood said. “You gotta have one that turns good. Every corner is different. If you get through (Turn) 1 and the Tunnel Turn, you gonna be loose in (Turn) 3, because 3 is a flat turn and it’s longer than the other two. Last year, we got it to where it was good through 1, good through the Tunnel Turn and a little bit free through that last turn, and it worked out pretty good like that.”

Of course, it depends on which driver you talk to as to how to set the car up. Ask Elliott Sadler, and he’ll tell you Turn 3 is crucial.

“It’s such a long, long, long straightaway down the frontstretch,” Sadler said. “If you feel like you got a really good car getting off Turn 3, then I think you’re going to have a pretty good lap. A lot of people talk about the Tunnel Turn, but I figure if you get off of Turn 3 the way you should, you’re going to have a pretty fast race car.”

The Tunnel Turn, Turn 2, is notorious for being difficult. Atwood said it’s the toughest but he enjoys it. Tony Stewart also said it was hard to negotiate.

“You go down the backstretch and into the Tunnel Turn, and it’s basically one lane,” Stewart said. “It’s flat and very line-sensitive. You’ve got to make sure you’re right on your marks every lap when you go through there. … Everybody realizes how fast they’re going into (Turn) 1. And they know that if they wreck they’re going to wreck hard. The Tunnel Turn is a little sneaky. It’s a tight fit through there, and you don’t really know how fast you’re going until something bad happens.”

This time around, something bad could happen in the engine compartment. Always a tough track on engines because of its long straights, NASCAR’s one-engine rule might make it more difficult.

“That’s a hard place on engines,” Petty said. “You’re shifting, and you’ve got these vast differences in the rpm bands. You could be as low as 4,500 or 5,000 or as high as 9,200 or 9,300. When you look at that, it’s not like Martinsville. It’s not quick. It’s for a longer period of time.”

But you can tune your engines too far down because you still need lots of horsepower.

“Pocono is one of the most challenging tracks we run because there are so many variables that all have to be working together,” defending race champion Ricky Rudd said. “Horsepower is so important because of the long straightaways, but you have to handle well, especially in the Tunnel Turn and off the final corner. If you don’t handle well, then you can’t get or stay in the gas longer and can’t use the horsepower.”

Staff Writer Lee Montgomery can be reached at lee.montgomery@rmg3.com

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