- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Deer and rabbits might occasionally slow the competition at Pocono Raceway, darting across the track in the Pennsylvania countryside. Such stoppages aren't as frequent as they used to be as the wildlife is chased away as more people move to the area to escape the city.
Still, a trip to Pocono is a blast from the past, and at least one thing hasn't changed in more than 30 years. Deer and rabbits might steal the spotlight at times, but everyone strapped into a race car is more worried about the horses under the hood than the animals on the track.
Without plenty of horsepower, a trip to the triangular facility will be nothing but a nightmare for a driver. The track is unique, with three distinct turns. Horsepower, though, will see a driver through.
"Horsepower at Pocono is something that you just can't live without," Elliott Sadler said. "I was just so happy when I got into Robert Yates' cars and realized how much horsepower we were going to have at Pocono, Michigan, places like that. I think it helps you throughout. It helps you to keep up with everybody on new tires, and it helps you get out of the hole on old tires when you start sliding around a lot. So, horsepower is something that's going to help you all the way throughout the run.
"The balance of the car will show up more at the end of a run than at the beginning, but the engine helps it throughout the whole thing. It's about 50-50 about whether it helps you the most at the beginning or at the end."
Tony Stewart couldn't agree more. No matter how well your car handles, it's useless without plenty of speed.
"If you're down on power at Pocono, you're a midpack car at best," Stewart said. "You need power to go down that front straightaway, and if you don't have it, you're done."
Both drivers agree that finding the right setup to deal with three distinct corners is the biggest challenge for the driver and crew chief. After all, once you get to the track, there's nothing more you can do about your engines, so it's all about handling at that point.
For Stewart, the Tunnel Turn is the key. He said if he can get through that turn and the flat corner that leads to the front straightaway, he's usually in for a good day.
From Stewart's perspective, the high-speed Turn 1 is the easiest challenge.
"You drive it in kind of deep and then try to float the car through the corner," he said. "You go down the backstretch and into the Tunnel Turn and it's basically one lane. 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. Then you've got a short chute into Turn 3. It's a big, long corner, and it, too, is very line-sensitive.
"With it being line-sensitive and the fact that we've got a straightaway that's three-quarters of a mile long after that, it's very important that you get through the last corner well. You need to come off the corner quickly so that you're not bogged down when you start down that long straightaway. Each corner has its challenges, and each one tends to present a different set of circumstances with each lap you make."
Although Sadler knows the Roush-Yates engine under the hood of his Ford Fusion will be stout, the team has struggled getting its cars dialed in this season. The team is revamping its engineering program in an attempt to rectify things, but it remains to be seen how things will go for Sadler this weekend.
He knows just how important it is to have a car that handles well enough to use all the horsepower at his disposal.
"You've got to figure out how to get your car to handle and turn without creating so much drag to slow you down on the straightaways too, because even if you're a little off in the corners, if you've got all your drag and things taken out of your race car, you can really fly down the straightaway and make up a lot of time," Sadler said. "Most guys' cars are a low center of gravity, like a flat-track car like you run at a Richmond or New Hampshire or something like that, because Pocono is pretty much a flat track. There's not much banking there, and if you get your car to rotate real good in the middle without using all those jacked-up springs and stuff in the back, you're going to have a pretty good day."
Stewart is happy to be at Pocono after racing just 38 laps at Dover. Trying to allow a broken right shoulder blade to heal, Stewart spent most of his time at Dover watching Ricky Rudd drive Stewart's Joe Gibbs Racing Chevrolet.
Dover's high banks put a greater physical strain on a driver than Pocono's flat, sweeping layout. Stewart said about two-thirds of each lap at Dover is spent driving through a corner, but you're on a straightaway about 70 percent of the time at Pocono.
Confident he can go the distance, Stewart said he doesn't plan to need a relief driver at Pocono this weekend. He thinks a week of rest and a new seat that's an inch wider will help make him more comfortable in the car.
Still, he knows 500 miles won't necessarily be a walk in the park for a left-handed driver who usually pulls on the wheel with that hand even when completely healthy.
"Where all the pain comes from is when we're loose and I have to back-steer the car," Stewart said. "It's still going to be uncomfortable, for sure. But as I get more strength back in my right arm, then the easier it'll be to back-steer the car. All in all, I think we'll be fine."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com