The new surface at Pocono Raceway can be described in one word: fast.
Two drivers topped the 175 mile-per-hour range — Mark Martin with a lap of 175.380 mph, just slightly faster than AJ Allmendinger’s speed of 175.029 mph.
In the first test session at the track Wednesday, 22 drivers broke the qualifying record of 172.533 set by Kasey Kahne in 2004 — and that was in race trim.
Jeff Gordon, who was 11th fastest in testing (173.87 mph) and leads all active drivers with five wins on the 2.5-mile track, says, “I’m not sure I want to know how fast we were going into Turn 1.” However, estimates are down the front straightaway drivers hit the 210-mph range. That will make for an interesting qualifying session Saturday.
“This place is a hold-your-breath anyway,” Gordon said. “When you go to qualify here, with the old pavement, you picked up a second-and-a-half after making a qualifying run in practice. That is a hold-your-breath situation. You’re shifting, you got to nail your marks — especially now that the groove’s narrower. You’re really going to have to hit your marks. And you’re going to have to be very aggressive.
“A harder tire on the new-paved track, as smooth as it is, it’s hard to feel the limit of that tire. So you’re already going to be on edge. You certainly don’t want to get out of the groove. It’s going to be white-knuckle for sure.”
Gordon believes that Pocono Raceway “did a great job” with the repaving of the surface — a project deemed overdue.
“Any repave that happens, (the track) is dramatically different because it’s just so much smoother, so much more grip, especially this track,” Gordon said. “It hadn’t been repaved in a long time, and the grip level — other than the strip over there in Turn 3, which made racing pretty interesting — the pavement was pretty worn and abrasive, and the tire fall-off showed it. Here (now), you go faster, faster and faster each time you go out.”
Despite the track’s facelift, Jeff Burton says Pocono Raceway has retained its core traits that distinguish the ‘Tricky Triangle’ from other venues on the Sprint Cup circuit.
“It’s still Pocono,” Burton said. “It still has the characteristics. I don’t know why it’s three corners instead of five, but it still has all the personality of Pocono but it just has more grip.”
After the scheduled four-hour test session, which was delayed temporarily by a light shower, Sprint Cup Series director John Darby said NASCAR was “pleased” with the final result of “the entire construction project.” He acknowledged that a lot of attention was paid to key areas around the track.
As far as the first day of the test, Darby says the sanctioning body’s agenda varies from the competitors — because NASCAR “is working on a different checklist.”
“We look for raceability of the cars,” Darby said. “We look for tire wear. We look for RPM ranges to make sure that the gearing is right — all of the things that we focus on week in and week out, which has all been checked off. Everything is very good at this point. We’re in for a real good race come Sunday.
“Goodyear has done a good job matching the tire to the new surface. All the way up and down through the garage, we’ve heard zero complaints — which is a good feeling. As we continue to run tomorrow and in the practices on Friday, it will only continue to get better throughout the weekend because more of the racing surface will get rubbered in, grooves will get wider, which offers the ability to the competitors to do some multiple-lane racing, especially through the corners where it counts on Sunday.”
Darby doesn’t anticipate having to take any additional measures to rubber in the track to achieve more grip — as was the case last fall at Phoenix, a track that is only one mile in length. Darby said because of the size of Pocono and the higher rate of speed, the surface has the tendency to naturally absorb more rubber. As far as the possibility of a competition caution, Darby says that depends on Mother Nature and whether rain washes the existing rubber from the track before Sunday.
Tire manufacturer Goodyear and team tire specialists also were content with what they saw Wednesday. Although the No. 29 Budweiser Chevrolet driven by Kevin Harvick did not make a full-fuel run (36 to 40 laps) during the first session, team tire man Andy Flynn said the tires were “wearing pretty good” given the harder compound and higher starting air pressures on the front tires (left front 17 psi and right front 39 psi).
“I haven’t heard any complaints throughout the garage,” Flynn said. “The speeds have been pretty consistent. It looks like you can run more laps on the tires despite the faster speeds.”