By Jared Turner
As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series continues headlong into its busy summer stretch, up next is the Axalta We Paint Winners 400 at Pocono Raceway – a track commonly known as the “Tricky Triangle.”
Rest assured, the nickname is not a misnomer.
With three straightaways and three distinct corners, all featuring various degrees of banking, Pocono is one of the hardest tracks to master on the schedule from both a driver and setup standpoint.
Getting a car to handle reasonably well in all three corners usually means a bit of compromise on at least one end of the track. So drastic is the drop-off in speed from the end of the lengthy Long Pond Straightaway to the entry of Turn 1 that many drivers actually shift gears – a practice normally reserved for road courses – to get their cars slowed down enough.
It often takes drivers many years to get a true handle on the tricky layout, while some drivers never really do.
One of those drivers is reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Kevin Harvick, who despite all of his success has failed to find Victory Lane in 28 Sprint Cup starts at Pocono.
It seems that the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is almost as mystified by the track now as he was as a Sprint Cup Series rookie back in 2001.
“Pocono is just one of those places where I haven’t had a ton of success,” said Harvick, who actually scored a career-best second-place finish at Pocono last August. “I think right before they repaved it was probably about the time I started to figure out the old Pocono out and started to run better. Probably the best memory I have there is winning a truck race. That is about the extent of it for me.”
Pocono was repaved ahead of its 2012 races and has been faster ever since. But its challenging configuration has not changed. And that holds true for both veterans and newcomers alike.
“I think Pocono is about compromise,” Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates driver Jamie McMurray said. “You can’t have you car good in all three turns, so just working to make the car good to carry speed down the long straightaways is really important. I think the best thing about Pocono is the shifting; I feel like that opens up opportunities to pass.”
At least the ride around Pocono’s 2.5-mile, mostly flat layout isn’t as bumpy as it was before getting a new coat of asphalt.
“With the repave, it is definitely a lot smoother,” JTG Daugherty Racing driver AJ Allmendinger said. “It is one of those places that you have got to get into a rhythm. You know using your brake markers. Usually a lot of these tracks you do it by feel, but at Pocono you have got to use markers on the side of the racetrack to figure out where you need to brake. You also have to get the downshifts timed right in general. It becomes a rhythm.”
The correct rhythm at Pocono is one that many drivers search for their whole career and sometimes never find.
“It’s a neat place, definitely a unique track,” said Stewart-Haas Racing’s Danica Patrick, who has finished no better than 29th in four starts at the Long Pond, Pennsylvania facility. “It’s still a place I don’t have a ton of experience at. It’s just an odd place to set the car up because the corners are so different. If you are really good in Turn 1, then maybe (Turn) 2 and (Turn) 3 are a little off. Or if you’re good in (Turn) 3, maybe (Turn) 1 and (Turn) 2 are different. I will say that the straightaway is enormous. There’s a lot of distance between turns 3 and 1.”