You really have to love Pocono
LONG POND, Pa. -- Pocono Raceway gets a bad rap.
All people want to do is complain about how long and boring the races are; how the track is stuck out in the middle of nowhere, far from civilization; how it can be raining in Turn 1 and sunny in Turn 3; how they would do a service to the sport by turning this into a natural preserve.
As one person said on pit road during Saturday's qualifying, "The best thing about Pocono is leaving."
People forget about all the things there are to like about this track built along Long Pond Road. Between the tall pines, mountain lakes and hand-carved bears, the scenery around this 2.5-mile oasis is breathtaking, much more appealing to the eye than some of the cookie-cutter tracks that are in the middle of large concrete parking lots.
At what other track can you find a large collection of boulders painted with the car numbers of the sport's legends? At what other track can you find a large collection of boulders?
Then there are the unusual debris cautions, otherwise known as wildlife. A chicken that initially was identified as a turkey once got onto the track to bring out the yellow. Neil Bonnett once hit a deer so hard in practice that one of its legs became a permanent fixture in his grille.
Legend has it that a black bear once tried to get into the booth with a NASCAR official.
And then there was arguably the best story, the 1993 race in which a highly intoxicated fan wandered across the track, escaping over the wall just before Davey Allison and Kyle Petty turned him into roadkill. That brought on a manhunt into a nearby swamp, where the local man eventually was snagged and held on a $20,000 bond.
You don't get that at Charlotte or Texas, where humdrum hot-dog wrappers bring out the caution.
The dining experience is unique, too. You don't find much ostrich or elk in Miami or California. You may find steak on a stone in those places, but it's probably not from a stone found behind the restaurant.
It's more laid-back than most places, too. Drivers love it because a lot of big-time media members tend to skip the event, meaning they don't face the normal scrutiny of a normal race weekend. Richard Childress probably thanked his lucky stars when he saw the first stop after his attack of Kyle Busch was here.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was loose during his media session to the point of being downright comical, talking about hydrating with pickle juice last weekend at Kansas.
"It worked good," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "I hear it's good for hangovers, too. I could be wrong, but I felt a lot better on Tuesday than I normally do."
The track also has a unique triangle shape that no other does, and a spiffy nickname: "The Tricky Triangle," or the "Tricky Scalene," as Jeff Gordon referred to it. At how many other tracks are geometric terms a topic?
"No, I wasn't," Gordon confessed when asked if he was good in high school geometry. "Trust me."
Many drivers, such as Gordon and Mark Martin, refer to Pocono as one of their favorite tracks. What's not to like? Everything from side-by-side racing to fuel mileage racing to engine wear come into play here.
The strategy of getting around each unique turn and everything else that comes into play confounds crew chiefs and drivers as much as any track on the circuit.
"It has three of the most challenging turns you will see," Gordon said after qualifying third to pole-sitter Kurt Busch and Paul Menard. "It takes a complete effort to be fast here. I love this place."
Despite all these positive things, people want to drag Pocono down, arguing that it should lose at least one race, perhaps two; that the race should be shortened from 500 miles to 400, maybe 300.
It seemed like half the questions on my Wednesday ESPN.com chat were about what could be done to make the racing better here. Many of you are hoping the return of shifting will make this a thrilling event, when really it won't change much at all except on restarts, which already were wild because the track is so open and wide.
So in an attempt to appease those who haven't bought into all that is good about Pocono, here are five suggestions the track might consider to improve the experience (Note: Shortening either race is not an option track owner Dr. Joseph Mattioli will consider).
1. Repave: There's no doubt that the roughness of the track, particularly in the Tunnel Turn, makes this a tough place to maneuver and helps spread things out. Repaving, perhaps adding more room to race two-wide in Turn 3, might help. You could add some banking in the turns that might change things as well.
2. Add restrictor plates: This might become necessary with a repaving, raising speeds to a level the governing body would have to keep cars from going into the turns at 230 mph. It could get wild if cars are bunched up like they are at Daytona and Talladega going into these tricky corners. The "Big One" would take on a whole new meaning.
3. Texas IndyCar Series approach: Since the Mattiolis won't shorten the races here in the name of maintaining tradition, how about do what the INDYCAR is doing at Texas on Saturday and run two 250-mile events on the same day and give half points for each? It'll still be the same number of total miles but might seem shorter with the break between events.
Here's a twist. Invert the field to start the second race instead of having a separate qualifying.
4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. rule: Give him a one-lap lead to start the race and see if anybody can catch him. It'll at least keep the attention of 35 to 45 percent of the fan base -- that is, barring a wreck or engine failure for him.
5. Open season: Release deer and/or other wildlife across the track every 50 miles and put deer stands in each turn to give fans selected through a lottery system a crack at bagging dinner. You might also consider giving bonus points to the driver that hits one. Either way, people would watch.
Or they could just leave things alone and hope that one day people appreciate Pocono for what makes it unique and stop giving it such a bad rap.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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