- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Jeff Green routinely runs 190-mph-plus in the No. 43 Dodge, but you'd swear he was stuck in neutral if you look at where he is in the Nextel Cup standings.
During the first 13 Cup races, Green has never been higher than 31st and never lower than 35th, which is where he's sat following the last three events. He's had some respectable qualifying efforts -- starting twice in the top-five and two other times in the top-10 -- yet he's been unable to finish any higher than 19th.
If Green were judged solely on optimism rather than results, he'd probably be in the top-10 right now. But he's also a realist -- he knows he and the rest of the team need a strong finish to start building some sorely-needed momentum, which he's hoping may pick up in Sunday's Pocono 500.
"I feel good," Green said of his chances for this weekend's event. "Every time we go to a place, no matter where we're going to, I leave the house feeling like I have a chance of sitting on the pole and winning the race. That would be a big turn for us. Our season hasn't gone like that at all, but we're getting our cars better and our engines better. We've been qualifying good the last couple of weeks although we haven't been racing very good.
"It's been fun to see all that stuff get better. The cars are getting better and the fab (fabrication) shop has worked really hard. They're really behind me as a driver -- as much as any team I've ever been with. That makes me excited and it makes me want to go back to the racetrack."
With Pocono's unique elongated triangular design, it gives drivers a combination of challenges that are typical to a wide variety of other racetracks on the circuit. It has the long 3,740-foot front straightaway akin to the slightly longer and equally straight backstretch at Talladega, has three completely different turns that resemble corners found not only on road courses, but also flat tracks like Phoenix. It also has the propensity to lead to excessive tire wear and greater pit strategy because of the track's inherent design and increased emphasis on fueling and tire combinations, particularly late in the race.
What's more, while several teams have been able to adapt and adjust to the new so-called "softer" compound in Goodyear tires this year, other teams like Petty Enterprises are still trying to get a handle on it.
"We used to run up against the wall, down on the bottom and in the middle of the racetrack at a lot of these racetracks where we go," Green said. "For some reason, it has taken that groove away from us. Our team, specifically, the tires wear out more, so from lap 1 to 75, however long the run is, the pace is going to slow down more because the tires wear out. In my situation, everybody has been running more gear and more gear because the pace slows down so much. We can't run that much gear -- as much as other people -- because of our motor package. We've been really working hard to get that turned around so we can do that. It kind of hurts me in the long run in a race because of that."
And, because of all that, handling is oftentimes one of the most crucial elements between success and disappointment around a place like Pocono's 2.5-mile tri-oval. It's for that very reason that Green and the rest of the team have been working so diligently on improving the handling on the No. 43, because it has admittedly been one of the team's most significant weaknesses this season. Likewise, another area where the team is lacking is also in overall horsepower. You know you have a problem when most of the field keeps pulling away from you week after week after week.
"We've got to work on our cars to get them handling better for the long runs," Green concedes. "I think our big holdup now is our motor program. The guys are turning more RPMs on other teams than with the package that we have and our team is working really hard to try to get our motors better where we can turn more RPMs. I think that's what shows during the race is when the tires start falling off, you start getting down lower in RPMs."
If there is a bright spot to what has been a rather dismal first third of the season for Green, it's job security. Last season, he raced for three teams, starting the year in the No. 30 Chevy of Richard Childress Racing, landing in the No. 1 Chevy of DEI Inc. when Steve Park was released (Park then replaced Green in the No. 30), and ended the season replacing John Andretti, who himself wound up at DEI.
While Green's performances haven't been markedly different from Andretti's before he was fired by team owner Kyle Petty, he nonetheless seems to have found a permanent home at Petty Enterprises. His racing philosophy is akin to that of his boss and teammate, and while there certainly is pressure to perform, it's not as demanding a pressure as he had with RCR. Like Petty, Green knows the team is in a long rebuilding program, and he plans to be there for the long haul.
But patience and dedication is nothing new for Green. Neither is competitiveness. He knows that there are often a lot of long curves that need to be rounded before success can be achieved. It's been a fixture in his makeup since he was a kid, playing with his brothers in Owensboro, Ky.
"When it rained in Kentucky, we had gutters out in front of our house," he recalled. "As young kids, when it would rain we would get Popsicle sticks, eat the Popsicle off of them, then take a Sharpie (marker) and put numbers on them and race them down the gutters. From day one we were competitive with each other, especially growing up with three boys in one house. My dad drag raced so we kind of helped him as we were growing up. I think all that stuff, when you have that bred into you and you see that day in and day out, you end up with a competitive nature."
Green has been racing long enough to know that there's nothing wrong with that competitive nature of his. He knows he's in a good situation with the No. 43 and with the Petty organization. He just has to bide his time and good things will eventually come -- perhaps as early as this Sunday.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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