As you read this, I am well on my way to Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. My plan was to leave Nashville at 4:00 this morning. Susan is sitting this one out due to her not having that much vacation time left with her job. So, I’m heading to Indianapolis and meeting up with our good friend Paul Dalbey of More Front Wing, who will be coming from his home in Illinois. From there, we’ll be riding together in my Honda which gets better mileage that his car. We’ll head across Ohio and most of Pennsylvania until we arrive at Pocono around dinner time this evening.
There is no track activity today, so we won’t miss anything. We’ll split the driving, so the trip shouldn’t be too bad. All practice and qualifying will be on Saturday, while the race will run on Sunday afternoon.
As I said on Monday, I am exceptionally glad that Pocono has already been extended for two more years. Like most, I was pleasantly surprised. One reason why I’m making this trip is that I was afraid that this was going to be the last year for the Verizon IndyCar Series to race at Pocono, and I was afraid if I didn’t go this year – I would not get another chance.
Did last week’s announcement make me rethink me making this trip? Not for a minute. I’ve been looking forward to going to the 2.5 mile Tricky Triangle, since I made the decision to go back in the winter.
I remember seeing CART race at Pocono in the eighties and was always intrigued with the unique design of the massive track. Even since I started writing here in 2009, I was always hoping the series would someday race at the privately owned oval in Pocono. It made sense at a time when all of the ovals owned by ISC seemed to be dropping off the schedule.
When IndyCar finally announced they would be returning to Pocono for the 2013 season, I told myself that I was going to go sometime. I discovered that sometime can be a finite window. I always swore that I would go to an IndyCar race at the Milwaukee Mile sometime. That opportunity came and went when Milwaukee dropped off of the 2016 schedule with no sign of a return for the foreseeable future – and I never went. That’s why I made sure to attend the IndyCar race at Road America this summer. In case it was a one-and-done – I wanted to be there for the one. As we all know, Road America will be back – but I didn’t know it when I made plans to go.
It was the same with Pocono. Sparse crowds over the last three races at Pocono made its return in 2016 tenuous at best. When it did finally appear on the 2016 schedule, I decided I’d better go while I can. I didn’t want it to be another Milwaukee, where I kicked myself for not going while I had the chance. Now that I know Pocono is back for another two years after this weekend’s race, I’m still glad I’m going.
There is something about a five-hundred mile race that makes an event special. This weekend will complete my personal “Triple Crown”. Aside from attending the Indianapolis 500 every year, Susan and I went to the MAVTV 500 at Fontana in 2013 and I’ll be at the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono this weekend. Five-hundred mile races aren’t the endurance tests they once were, but they do offer many additional challenges not found in a typical two-hundred mile event.
There are so many more pit stops than in a typical race. That presents more opportunities for things to go wrong. There could be as many as eight pit stops on Sunday as compared to the two to three in most typical races. With cars going 225 mph or faster, one crewmember dropping a lug nut one just one of those pit stops can be the difference in a podium finish or a middle of the pack result.
As Scott Dixon pointed out on Trackside the other night, the longer race also presents more opportunities to work on the car and get it right. If you’ve got a bad car at Milwaukee, chances are that you won’t get it right in the short amount of time the race takes. In the longer five-hundred miler, being good at the start does not guarantee you’ll be good at the end. Your competitors have more time to make adjustments to improve their cars – perhaps even better than yours.
The 2013 race at Pocono was not that spectacular It was only a four-hundred mile event and was a showcase for Chip Ganassi Racing, as they came away with a sweep of the podium. Scott Dixon won, with Charlie Kimball and Dario Franchitti finishing second and third respectively.
In 2014, the event was increased to the current five-hundred mile format. Coincidence or not, the racing became a lot better. Juan Montoya had a spirited battle (to say the least) with his Penske teammates and won an exciting event. Last year’s race was not as exciting as the five-hundred mile thriller at Fontana a few weeks earlier, but it provided a lot of great racing – with Ryan Hunter-Reay emerging as the winner.
Unfortunately, last year’s race at Pocono will also be remembered for the race where Justin Wilson was fatally injured in a freak accident, when he was struck in the head by debris caused by Sage Karam’s crash in Turn Two. I’m sure Justin Wilson and his family will be in the minds of many in the IndyCar community this weekend.
Along with remembering Justin Wilson this weekend, this will be the first IndyCar race since Bryan Clauson lost his life a couple of weekends ago. Since Clauson drove for Dale Coyne in this year’s Indianapolis 500, they are doing a tribute to their fallen teammate. His friend and teammate Conor Daly will drive a car in the same livery as Clauson drove in the “500” and his No.18 car will be re-numbered to the No.88 that Clauson drove in May. It will carry a “BC Forever” tribute logo on the sidepod. One of his other teammates from Indianapolis, Pippa Mann, will be back behind the wheel of the other Dale Coyne car. Pippa tied her career-best finish in an IndyCar at Pocono last season, finishing thirteenth after starting seventeenth. I’m always glad to see Pippa get a chance for more seat time. I’ve always said she is one of IndyCar’s best ambassadors and has a huge following of fans. The more times she can race, the better for Pippa, her fans and the series as a whole.
I’m anxious to see the massively long and wide main straightaway at Pocono, where cars were sometimes six and seven-wide on restarts last year. I’ve heard stories about how nerve-wracking it is to watch them all squeeze into the unique Turn One, then rushing down to the Tunnel Turn of Turn Two before setting up for the long straightaway again as the come out of Turn Three. Unlike most ovals, there is no Turn Four.
Each turn at Pocono is modeled after turns at other famous race tracks. Turn One is meant to replicate a turn at Trenton Speedway, which no longer exists. Turn Two, or the Tunnel Turn as it is known, is a duplicate of Indianapolis. Turn Three is designed to copy the sweeping turns at Milwaukee. The varying degrees of banking from one turn to another makes this a very interesting and challenging track, which probably explains why Pocono is such a favorite track among the drivers.
Since Honda had such a good outing on the last 2.5 mile superspeedway (Indianapolis), I’m sure the Honda camp is excited to get to another track where they can finally expect some more success.
Many are thinking that since Andretti Autosport was so successful at Indianapolis and that they won at Pocono last year, that they should be a favorite this weekend. I don’t think so. I think this team has struggled so mightily at all the other tracks, their problems lie deeper than which track they are on. I have no idea what the problems are with this team, but I don’t see them suddenly becoming a force at Pocono. I predict they will be as lost this weekend as they were at Iowa.
But I do buy into the idea that Honda will be strong this weekend. On our last One Take Only, I picked Will Power to win. That may still be possible, but I’m not so sure now that I’ve had time to think about it. But I do think Power will finish ahead of Simon Pagenaud, thereby tightening up the points race. Simon Pagenaud does not have the best record in five-hundred mile races. His best finish was sixth at Pocono in 2014. I predict a somewhat rough weekend for Pagenaud this weekend.
While my heart says to pick Josef Newgarden to win this weekend, I think a Honda powered car will end up in victory lane at Pocono – but it won’t be an Andretti car for the reasons listed above. I see it coming down to the cars of Graham Rahal and James Hinchcliffe to come away with the win on Sunday. Who will get it? James Hinchcliffe. We’ll see.
As I usually do on a race weekend where I’m in attendance, I will be posting throughout the race weekend. Since there is no track activity on Friday and we’ll be travelling, this will be it for today. But we plan on being at the track early tomorrow, so be sure and check back throughout the weekend. And as usual, you can follow me on Twitter at @Oilpressureblog for lots of photos, information, etc.