Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rating the Pocono 400: 4 Stars ****

A weird, largely confusing day at Pocono Raceway ended with Joey Logano getting his first full-length Spring Cup Series win as he nudged Mark Martin out of the way with four laps to go. The first race on Pocono’s new pavement gets a 4 Star Rating.
This was a huge win for Logano. He set a new track record with his qualifying speed Saturday to win the pole, and then he won the race Sunday that was littered with pit road speeding penalties.
We’ll get to the speeding issues in a bit, but Logano went from possibly losing his ride in the #20 car at the end of the year to a legitimate Chase contender in just one weekend.
He now sits tied for 14th in the points standings with Ryan Newman. Newman holds the tie-breaker because he has one more top-five finish than Logano, but those are the two drivers currently battling for the second wild-card spot. That’s not bad for a guy who came into the weekend with no wins, no poles, no top fives and just four top 10s in 13 races.
The way he won the race was also impressive. A debris caution within the last 10 laps of the race forced a late-race restart. Mark Martin lined up next to Logano and took the lead. Most people probably thought the veteran Martin would not get beat by a 22-year-old Logano who had just one rain-shortened win in 2009 at New Hampshire to his credit.
Instead, Logano closed in after Martin bobbled in Turn 3 and moved Martin up the track just enough in Turn 1 to take the lead and never look back. Logano had the best car this weekend, and he was able to close the deal.
That could be huge for him heading into the summer stretch of the season. Drivers often really struggle to break into Victory Lane for the first time, or even for the first time in a long time i.e. Martin Truex Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
However, once a driver gets a win, they tend to carry that momentum for several weeks and perhaps the rest of the season. Brad Keselowski did so last year after his win in the spring at Kansas Speedway.
As for the rest of the race, the uncertainties about the track after the repave proved to be nothing more than worries. The racing was fine for the most part, and it was better than what we see in the first races at many other tracks after a repave.
But, the racing took a back seat to all of the confusion on pit road for much of the first part of the race. NASCAR handed out 22 pit road speeding penalties throughout the race. NASCAR moved the timing lines during the repave, but many teams failed to realize the difference before the race, causing mass confusion as driver after driver served a penalty.
The penalized drivers are lucky this happened at Pocono. Many did not lose a lap, but a ton of cars would’ve fallen multiple laps down if this had happened at a short track.
People have debated, vehemently in some cases, where to place the blame in this situation. Most, if not all of the blame, should rest on the teams’ shoulders because they failed to include that detail in their pre-race checklists.
Sure, NASCAR could’ve made an announcement at the drivers meeting or something, but the pit road map was available to teams all weekend. Some checked the map and others didn’t. The ones that didn’t check felt those consequences Sunday.
Now the series will head to another repaved track at Michigan International Speedway. Drivers sped into Turn 1 at Pocono at nearly 210 mph, and the speeds heading into Turn 1 at Michigan could be even higher.
That should certainly make for some tense qualifying laps. Hopefully the race is just as intense.

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