Pocono learning curve has changed
Drivers in NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series describe Pocono Raceway as a cross between an oval, a road course and a short track. That's a tough road to navigate for anybody, and when you consider the three vastly different turns at the track, you realize that the 2.5-mile triangle is one of the hardest for a driver to learn.
"Pocono is an extremely tough racetrack for veterans, let alone rookies," said Bob Osborne, crew chief of the No. 99 Ford driven by Carl Edwards.
But NASCAR's first trip to the track last month ended with three of the series' youngest drivers finishing among the top five. Edwards won in his first visit to the track; Brian Vickers finished second in his third visit; and Kyle Busch was fourth in his first visit.
There also were some drivers with experience at Pocono in the mix, with Joe Nemechek, Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin all among the top 10 finishers -- but it was a battle of youth in the front. And although some of that is attributable to rampant tire problems, many believe it was mostly that everyone was starting from scratch with the drastically different new rules for Pocono.
Chief among the changes was the no-shift rule, which was designed to bring everyone down to approximately the same horsepower.
"Racing there was totally different because it had been so long since we had not shifted," Dale Jarrett said. "When you put all the cars at basically the same horsepower, then it's going to come down to something else to make you better than that person in front of you, and then you have to work in other areas."
Some of the vets on the circuit remember another time when there was no shifting at Pocono -- about 10 years ago. But strategies from those days hardly translate now. Many of the younger guys' crews focused on setting the car up to handle well in particular turns. Although Edwards won't say which his crew chose, he does credit that to his being up front in the end.
"They did a great job," he said of his crew members. "Everybody was coming in starting from scratch and I think we just guessed right."
Edwards and Vickers, who battled for the win, had crews that stumbled on the right package -- choosing wisely which turns to focus on for the setup.
"Pocono presents a fun challenge for the drivers because all three corners are different," said Jamie McMurray, who finished 10th. "It's almost impossible to get the car perfect all the way around, so basically you try to focus on getting the car really good in one corner and let the driver take care of the others."
McMurray said that from what he and his team saw last month, they know exactly where to focus energy this time around.
"Turn 3, or the final corner, is the most important with the new gear rule," he said. "You have to be able to get through there without losing a lot of momentum so you can make passes down the long frontstretch."
But as with every track on the circuit, teams disagree on strategy. Kurt Busch, for instance, says that, from what he gathered last time out, it's more important to handle better through the first turn.
"You'll lose speed between the sections of turn 1 and turn 2, the tunnel turn, because that's where you used to shift," he said. "You're going to have to maintain a ton of speed through turn 1 so you can carry that momentum down that straightaway. So, that's going to be the biggest challenge."
Who knows who's right. But if things shake out like last time, the crew that knows no better than to stumble upon the right guess might be the one that prevails.
"We've all seen it now," Jarrett said. "Young guys, veterans -- everybody's had the same experience [under the new rules]. It could get a little racy."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.