Joey Logano, after testing for Goodyear on Pocono's new asphalt, says he anticipates some thrills and chills, especially over at the tunnel turn
By Mike Mulhern
That light dusting of snow the other day didn't keep Goodyear engineers and NASCAR drivers from giving Pocono Raceway's new asphalt a good workout, with an eye toward the tour stop at the Pennsylvania mountains stock car tour stop June 10th.
And the first word from the men handling that test is that Pocono will indeed be smooth and fast, though 205 mph at the end of the longest straight in the sport was far slower than some drivers had predicted.
Those top speeds of 215 mph on the new Michigan asphalt three weeks ago had some wondering if Pocono, with a longer straight, might be even faster. But Pocono's slow third turn, even with new grippy asphalt, apparently will keep top speeds slower than expected.
However the infamous Pocono tunnel turn….well, Brandon Igdalsky, the man now running the 40-year-old, three-corner track just 90 minutes from Manhattan, might want to put some grandstand seats over there.
The run down the Long Pond Straight and into the very fast but very narrow tunnel turn has long been a thriller, with drivers doing their best to intimidate each other.
Remember Dale Earnhardt beating Alan Kulwicki through there the last lap once, using a hailstorm of rocks on the inside apron to batter Kulwicki.
And there are a lot of drivers who fared much worse over there, like Davey Allison and Elliott Sadler.
That lane up high, it will be about four or five degrees lower in August. Wonder what that will do for the racing? (Photo: Bristol)
Joey Logano was one of the five men testing tires for Goodyear at Pocono.
The tunnel turn caught his attention: "I thought it was exciting before," Logano says with a laugh. "That little turn provides some good entertainment.
"You are still booking through there, but with the new asphalt you're feeling in a little more control over the tunnel turn now.
"You're still sliding through there up toward the wall, but just not quite as fast a slide up there. You can hold the curb a little longer before you go up.
"Two-wide is going to be scarey. But hopefully after that ARCA race and Truck race that weekend the second lane will rubber in a little bit.
"Still, the first few laps it's going to icy….and you're not going to want to the guy on the outside going into the tunnel. Not that you ever wanted to before….
"But when it's new asphalt like that, when you get outside the rubber, it's ice."
Joey Logano and John Cena. Sometimes racing at Pocono is like wrestling Cena.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Pocono's bumps have been interesting for drivers and shock men to play with. The track is a lot smoother now, though it's not the smoothest track on the tour.
The first turn, where hits can be savage, may not be as worrisome as some thought.
"I thought it was going to be faster down there too," Logano says.
"Now overall lap times are much faster. But top-speed isn't much different."
Speeds in Pocono qualifying could be as much as two seconds a lap quicker. Kasey Kahne set the track record of 172.533 mph in 2004; and Brad Keselowski wasn't far off in his pole run last season, at 172.055. A pickup of two seconds would have drivers flirting with 180 all the way around.
Getting into turn one, Logano says, isn't much different than it used to be, hitting the same marks, just using less brake because the asphalt has more grip. "And then you're right back to the gas."
One issue on the tour that has occasionally bothered engine men (like apparently at Kansas last weekend) is that engines, with NASCAR's mandated rear end gear, may turn more RPM than preferable. "They're cranked up there, that's for sure," Logano says. "On the front straight and the Long Pond too."
Excess RPM of course can lead to engine failures.
Well, this is Bruton Smith's game plan for his August night race. Lower the banking in the high groove (Photo: Bristol)
Goodyear's Greg Stucker, who has played a key role in the company's amazing NASCAR turnaround since the 2008 problems, says the Pocono test went well.
"Like any repave it's going to be fast. It's pretty smooth. A lot of grip in the asphalt," Stucker says.
"The numbers I heard were over 205 into the first turn, and approaching 200 into the tunnel. And I expect the speeds to get faster. We were in the mid-51s, almost a second faster than the track record. Not uncommon for a new surface."
Michigan's 215? "You carry a lot more speed through the corners at Michigan than at Pocono," Stucker points out.
"Everybody seemed to be real complimentary of the surface. We didn't see any issues with it whatsoever. I think they did a very good job with the repave.
"They did a very thorough job with drainage. We had a little snow Monday night, and we had no problems with the track drying real quickly Tuesday."
Rain is always an issue in the Poconos; in fact that's why NASCAR will open the track for Cup practice two days early, anticipating the threat of rain.
The brain trust for NASCAR operations: Goodyear's NASCAR field director Greg Stucker (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Goodyear and Stucker have more on their plate than just Pocono and Michigan.
Last week's test at Dover wasn't on a new surface but was an attempt to find better compounds for 'rubbering in' the concrete; drivers have complained that Goodyear's special concrete compounds sometimes lay down too much rubber. Stucker says that test was successful.
Kansas Speedway is being torn up, redesigned, and rebuilt, in time for Oct. 21 Cup event.
And looming is an early June test (12 and 13) at Bristol, where Bruton Smith is grinding down the outside lane in the corners, to try to move the fast groove down.
Work has already begun at Bristol, and it will be a tight schedule having everything finished in time for Goodyear.
Stucker says Goodyear's primary concern will be the Bristol 'finish' -- "We'll have to see what the finish is on the surface when they get done. We've talked to them about that, and NASCAR is in the same boat.
"We want it all to be consistent top to bottom; we don't want a different finish in the top lane than in the bottom two lanes. Because if you create a rougher surface up high, you might have more grip up there and make the situation worse.
"Now changing the configuration of the top two lanes might not necessarily dictate a change in tires. But surface changes are something we'll have to be concerned about.
"We'll be prepared to test with not only what we've got now but with a couple options too.
"Hopefully we'll be able to get a look at it when they get through resurfacing, so we can see what the surface looks like."
Goodyear Stu Grant, head of racing operations, is always the center of attention when the questions are about tires. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Goodyear and Bristol officials began discussing this project three weeks ago, when Smith first decided to change things.
Smith says he wants Goodyear to bring softer tires to Bristol for the August race, to create better racing.
Goodyear in fact tried softer tires at Bristol last year, but had to change during race weekend when wear showed excessive.
And the racing groove hasn't change since then.
"The wear early in the weekend was extremely quick," Stucker said. "So much so that it concerned everybody.
"So we made a change.
"You have to be cognizant of that concrete surface: you have to get the right level of grip, but you also have to get rubber laid down.
"It's different than asphalt.
"One thing with concrete is it's very, very consistent.
"So we're at a pretty good 'happy point' (with Bristol) right now."
Bristol used to boast the toughest ticket in NASCAR. Will Bruton Smith's new game plan perk things up? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
This is all playing out to a backdrop of increasing fan complaints about less-than-thrilling action on the tour this year.
Can Goodyear provide 'better' tires for better racing? Can Goodyear fix NASCAR's problems?
There are two angles here:
– One, that Texas and Kansas may have been boring races to watch but the surface itself at both tracks was perfect for great racing, abrasive enough for tires to fall off in speed around two seconds a lap. So the racing at those two tracks should have been great. Hard to see how Goodyear could make those two events any better, from a tire engineering standpoint.
-- Two, a question of whether Goodyear can or should 'layer' its NASCAR tires so the outer layer is softer, for better grip, but the inside layer is hard and durable.
"Everybody wants to point at one thing….but you have to consider that it's all a package: you have a race car that's designed and built by engineers, who work with a lot of tire data that we provide," Stucker says. "They use a lot of simulations, and they do a pretty good job tuning the race cars to the conditions.
"And we have done a pretty good job of tuning the tires to the race track and the cars.
"It's a good package, to be honest with you, and the guys are comfortable. When you can race side by side and not get into each other, that is good racing.
"It's an integrated package; we can't just decide we're going to make softer tires, and have that fix things without causing something else to happen.
"If you gave everybody softer tires, that wouldn't change anything. You'd just increase speeds, and I don't think it would really change anything."
But how about laying the tires, so there is drop-off in speeds?
Technically is that feasible? Yes.
"We've explored different pieces of that, we just don't feel it's a good option," Stucker says.
Expense for one.
"Plus, we try to apply similar combinations at various tracks…and what might work here might not work at say Loudon. Tires would become more specialized if you took that approach.
"Not to say we might not do that in the future, but right now it doesn't look like the right way to attack it."
They're round and black and filled with magic (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)