A year ago, the return to Pocono Raceway to the schedule was one of the most anticipated events of the season. It was the first time open-wheel cars had run at the Tricky Triangle, since Danny Sullivan piloted his Penske/Chevy to victory in 1989.
For the next twenty-three years, we watched NASCAR visit the storied and scenic 2.5-mile oval in rural Pennsylvania twice a year, while we were told that there was no way open-wheel cars would ever return. We were told that the track needed too many modifications, which would never be done. Open-wheel fans were left to their memories to conjure up images from the past, when Pocono was part of the Triple Crown of the seventies, along with Indianapolis and the IMS clone – Ontario Motor Speedway.
Never say never – because the series returned to Pocono last year, albeit in a 400-mile format. This year, the Verizon IndyCar Series has extended the distance to the more traditional 500 miles. That makes the current Triple Crown – consisting of Indianapolis, Pocono and Fontana – a true trifecta of three 500-milers, although Fuzzy’s Ultra-Premium Vodka has pulled out as the sponsor of it. I’m still a little confused about whether the Triple Crown still officially exists or not. I think it does, but in name only. I don’t think there is any prize money involved, but I believe the series still recognizes it as an official accomplishment.
The only driver to ever win the Triple Crown was Al Unser in 1978. We will know by this weekend if Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay will still be eligible after Sunday. If he were to win at Pocono, that would create quite the storyline heading into Fontana – along with trying to decide the championship.
I’ll be honest – I was actually a little disappointed in last year’s race at Pocono. I found it a tad bit boring, especially after the record-setting number of lead changes during the Indianapolis 500 less than a couple of months earlier. Perhaps I was expecting too much after so much buildup in my own mind. It was a decent race, but not as compelling as I had hoped.
Unfortunately, it appears many potential attendees for this year’s race felt as I do. Apparently ticket sales have been drastically lower than last year’s race. So much so that track president Brandon Igdalsky said yesterday that getting out of next year’s race in the final year of the contract, is not out of the question. He is very concerned that they will end up losing a substantial amount of money, based on poor ticket sales. Last year’s race was estimated to have between 30,000 and 35,000 fans. I’m not sure what constitutes "scary", as Igdalsky put it, but it must be a low number.
That would be a huge blow to the Verizon IndyCar Series, if that were to happen – for a lot of reasons. The perception it would create could be devastating. Plus, there are very few ovals on the current schedule. Losing what has been touted as a fan favorite would be tough to swallow. Of course, if it is a fan favorite, why haven’t more fans in the Northeast bought tickets? This will be an interesting situation to watch unfold throughout the weekend.
Probably the most noteworthy event on the track from last year’s race was Scott Dixon winning and breaking the Ganassi winless streak for the season. It also began the improbable run to the championship for Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves. Pocono was the first of three wins in a row for Dixon, who also won again with two races to go.
This season, the scenario is similar. Ganassi has no wins and Dixon is behind in championship points. But the one difference this season is that Dixon is very far behind points leader Will Power. Dixon is ninth and 168 points behind Power, with only eight races remaining. The silver lining for Dixon is that two of those eight pay double points, including this weekend. But Dixon can have no more bad luck and he needs to win this weekend, while Will Power suffers some misfortune early in the race to insure that he collects as few points as possible. Otherwise, Dixon can forget about repeating as series champion.
The two drivers that are leading the points, both need to rebound from a very disappointing weekend at Houston. Will Power had a disastrous weekend from start to finish. Helio Castroneves showed great potential for both races, yet had poor finishes. Oddly enough, they left Houston as they arrived – separated by thirty-nine points. Ryan Hunter-Reay sits just two points behind Helio and is right in the thick of things. Even after Sunday’s win, Simon Pagenaud is still fifty-nine points behind Power. Beyond Pagenaud, no one is close enough to Power to overtake him this weekend.
This is a big track with lots of room to pass on the straightaways. Each of the three turns offers a unique challenge to the drivers. James Hinchcliffe started on the front row last year at Pocono, yet he didn’t make it past Turn One. With double-points at stake, it’s very important for a driver to keep their nose clean. Even a not-so-spectacular finish can yield enough points to significantly affect the championship standings.
So who is my pick for this weekend? It’s a driver who has been showing steady improvement each race this season and now appears ready to notch his first open-wheel win in quite a while. He also has far more experience at this track than any other driver in the field. Look for Juan Montoya to be in victory lane at Pocono this Sunday afternoon, once the dust settles.
I hope everyone has a safe and enjoyable Fourth of July weekend. Holiday weekend or not, it’s a race weekend, so I’ll have the usual “Random Thoughts” on Monday. Enjoy the race!