AP Photo/Russ Hamilton
Start Your EnginesThe late Rodney Dangerfield would have been able to relate to Pocono Raceway. No track in NASCAR gets so little respect. Whenever there's talk about changing something in Sprint Cup, the discussion eventually ends up about Long Pond, Pa. Shorten the races? Sure, start by turning 500 miles at Pocono into 400 or fewer. Tweak the schedule? Yes, some tracks don't need two dates, like Pocono. Add excitement to a sometimes dull series? Catch the next bus out of Long Pond. So on it goes, including last week from four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, who called the track "outdated" and said it needs "a ton of upgrades." And this is your defending Pocono 500 champion talking. But until further notice, that's still just talk. Pocono hosts two races in the next two months, two of the last 13 races to earn points toward the Chase for the Cup. In the big picture, the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track will play a more significant role in deciding a champion than those in Las Vegas, Darlington or Indianapolis. It's time to get used to Pocono again, starting Sunday with the Pocono 500. "Ever since I ran there back as a rookie in 2001, I have really liked the Pocono track," said Penske Racing's Kurt Busch, who was among the best last week at a test session there. "It's a challenge that I always enjoy. Through the years, it seems like we always get a big boost every time we race there." Busch has won at Pocono twice, including last year's August race, and at 21st in the standings he'll need to find that success again to make a long-shot push for the Chase. Teammate Ryan Newman is also on the outside of the top 12, sitting in 14th after three consecutive weeks of finishes off the lead lap. He won at Pocono in 2003 and likes the challenge of the unusual three-turn layout. "It's a driver's racetrack. It has three independent corners. They drive differently and you have to adapt," Newman said. "Turn 1 is pretty difficult. The Tunnel Turn is probably the hardest corner. It's a place that I look forward to, and I think that the team does, too." No one looks forward to it more than Denny Hamlin. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver, ninth in points, won both Pocono races as a rookie and followed that up with sixth and third last year, making the track an unlikely favorite. "I think that's something we have been trying to figure out since that first season there when we had so much success," Hamlin said. "Pocono is really unlike any other track." It's a blessing and a curse.
Rocket ManKyle Busch: Two good measuring sticks to gauge your success in NASCAR: (a) The fans boo you. Loudly. (b) People start to steal your stuff. You get booed when you're fiercely successful, and in winning at Dover for his fourth Cup win of the season and 10th across Cup, Nationwide and Truck, Busch is certifiably ablaze. Friday night his helmet was stolen from the garage, perhaps by a fan who figured by year's end it would be worth some serious money after Busch wins the Cup and Nationwide titles and 25 total races. Maybe, but all the thief got was trouble. The culprit was nabbed while leaving the track. John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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