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Pocono: Kudos to BigDalsky -- $3 million worth of safety improvements

  Ah, these Pocono Raceway fans....never quite sure where they're coming from..Wonder if those Dead Heads are still camping out down in the first turn? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   POCONO, Pa.
   Remember Elliott Sadler?
   Here last summer Sadler hit the wall head-on, in one of the sport's most savage hits ever.
   Now -- almost lost in the hoopla and controversy over Richard Childress versus Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman versus Juan Pablo Montoya, and NASCAR's secret penalties, and criticism over some of the sanctioning body's recent decisions – are the new safety improvements at Pocono Raceway, some $3 million worth, triggered by Sadler's frightening accident.

   Sadler's crash ( 1:38 into this video  http://bit.ly/cK6pIB ) prompted the safety changes, which drivers are applauding, and which should make Sunday's 500 much safer.
   Kudos to track boss Brandon Igdalsky (twitter: @bigdalsky ) for pushing safety:  http://bit.ly/kOwHAf .


    Looks likes that turnaround at Roger Penske's is for real: Kurt Busch on the pole at Pocono for Sunday's 500, just a week after dominating at Kansas City. "I took the apple tree and just shook it as hard as I could at Richmond." (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR).

    That's just one storyline here this weekend.
   Another one: Kurt Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski, who both stole the show from Jack Roush's Fords at Kansas City, and who could  both be factors in Sunday's Pocono 500. Busch won the pole Saturday, and in his backup car no less, after spinning in Friday practice while gambling with different transmission gears and shifting points.

   Another storyline here: Tony Stewart, whose decision to release competition director Bobby Hutchens after 2-1/2 years was quite a surprise.
   Stewart, since running so well at Las Vegas back in March, has been far off the pace nearly every week since. Last week at Kansas City Stewart complained that his engines weren't as strong as Jack Roush's Ford motors.
   Now Stewart says he's in the market for a new competition director.
   "We just feel we're not headed in the direction we want," Stewart says. "We've got to make a change in that direction."
   But dismissing Hutchens seems rather extreme, particularly since Stewart appears to have no one particular in mind to take that slot.
   "I can promise you it's one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make in my life," Stewart says. "I think the world of Bobby. I have a lot of respect for Bobby.
   "But it's a situation where you've got to evaluate where -- and if -- things are going in a direction you want them to go…and I just don't feel like it's doing that right now."
    However the move will almost certainly add to the sense of internal unrest inside the Stewart team.


Elliott Sadler lays on the track as emergency crews check him out after last summer's savage crash (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


And where might Hutchens wind up? Almost certainly at another Chevrolet team, since the veteran engineer is widely respected in Detroit.
    But then again maybe Toyota would like to find a spot for Hutchens. Maybe the Joe Gibbs' bunch?
    Where does Matt Borland fit into all this? Did Borland and Hutchens have a falling out? Did Hutchens have ideas that didn't fit well with crew chiefs Darian Grubb and Tony Gibson?
   And now who might want to take the job of heading Stewart's operation? After all Stewart is not the easiest driver to deal with, and much of this season he's been downright irritable.
   But now Stewart is on the spot to make something happen.
    "Matt has been there from Day One," Stewart says. "The thing we wanted to do was take Matt, because he's so smart, and put him on a project side where he can really look at different aspects of our team and company and try to figure out how to get 100 percent out of it.
    "He's been in the role of competition director at the shop before, so it makes him an easy choice…until we can find somebody we feel like is the right person."


Ryan Newman: Another secret NASCAR penalty? And what's the deal on that shakeup inside his race team? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    On the other side of the Stewart shop, teammate Ryan Newman says moving Hutchens out of the game "was a bit of a surprise.
    "But at the same time changes are sometimes needed to initiate the spark, to initiate that new chemistry."
    Yet if there is any game plan here, it's still not clear.
    Borland appears only a temporary fix.
   "I don't think Matt’s position right now is his long-term goal….I think it's an interim thing," Newman says. "But he does bring a lot of technology.
   "The change…has nothing to do with our relationship with Hendrick, nothing to do with the chassis or engines. It is more a team chemistry situation -- how everybody gets along."
    Another story line here: the disarray that NASCAR's 'Boys, have at it' has created in the past few weeks.
    Is it time for NASCAR to reconsider things, perhaps revert to 'a kinder, gentler NASCAR?'
   Kevin Harvick, who is in the final week of his Darlington-inspired probation, just laughs:
   "Kinder and gentler is boring. Things happen…and there is a lot of emotion that comes with this sport. To have that caged up and have that not seen, and not let everyone see how much everybody cares about this sport would be crazy."
   Certainly Harvick's car owner, Childress, has done his part the past week to keep emotions at a fever-pitch. And Childress so far hasn't apologized for his punching out Busch at Kansas City….

   Elliott Sadler's Pocono crash last summer was so violent it ripped the engine right out of his car (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon, who hasn't won on the tour since Phoenix in February, is still trying to make it on the comeback trail. "We came out strong early in the season, and then we fell off on the 1-1/2 miles, and we've been climbing out way back."
   Will NASCAR's new shifting rules here help or hurt?
   "I'm glad it's back," Gordon says. "I wasn't a fan of when they took it away.
    "I feel I have an opportunity (now) to grab that third gear to get a little bit better launch up off the corner.
    "It challenges you, as a driver and team, to work on the car to be able to do that.
    "And that adds another set of skills I think are important, especially here at Pocono, as well as more opportunities to pass. That's important, because we've seen how track position is so important…and getting your car to turn down under somebody and then grab that gear to make a pass is important.
    "Some guys were shifting the last couple of time we were here with the old transmission. I don't know how they were doing it. I wasn't one of them…
    "It makes sense to have the right third-gear in there to be able to shift. It's not difficult.
     "What they were doing last time we were here was difficult. The guys doing it, I still shake my head at it, because it was a huge jump from fourth to third; it got your attention.
    "I tried it and said 'No thank you. There is no way I'm doing this for 500 miles.'
    "But some guys did.
    "Now that we have the proper gearing, it should be fairly straight-forward."
    Still, Gordon is aware of the issues with shifting here: "The amount of speed you're carrying into the corners now -- especially with downshifting.
    "These corners are not easy corners to go through."


Kyle Busch seldom runs well here, but teammate Denny Hamlin always does. Wonder how that might play out this weekend? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    On top of that, fuel mileage could easily be an issue again…as it was at Charlotte and Chicago and Kansas City…and as it will almost certainly be next week at Michigan.
    "At these two tracks, fuel mileage is key," Gordon says. "We've been working so hard on making our cars faster that we have not put a lot of focus into fuel mileage…and it's something we need to put a lot more attention on."
    Teammate Jimmie Johnson says a significant issue in Sunday's race could now be blown engines and broken transmissions
   "We started shifting last year, and I even tried some the year before that, but didn't see a lot of speed, because with the gear ratios we were allowed to use there was such a big gap between each downshift that, one, it was very risky, and two, we couldn't run the coolers on the cars to keep everything cool.
   "If you are running in third gear a lot, you are going to build extra heat, and you need to have coolers."
   Another issue here this time: "the power curve of the engine," Johnson says.
   "If you are not shifting, you might want to move the power curve down to a lower rpm range; then if you shift, you want to do the opposite, because you can stay in that peak rpm longer."
    What will be interesting to watch in all this is how those new Ford FR9s are set up here. The FR9s appear to be significantly stronger than other engines (though at Kansas City last weekend the hot and greasy track may have negated that advantage and actually made lesser horsepower motors more competitive).
    Johnson says he likes having options like this: "Give us drivers options…give the team options, the engine shops options.
    "There is a lot of excitement coming into this race from the garage area."
    Well, not everywhere in the garage.
    Stewart's take: "I don't understand why anybody should have to shift on an oval in a stock car."

                                The starting lineup for Sunday's Pocono 500



Mark Martin

I cannot believe that NO ONE has written any thing on the lack of success for Mark Martin this season. Personally, I think Mark got the short end of the stick on the crew chief shuffle. Mark cannot be happy! and I wonder if Mr Hendrick is happy? Change should be made imediately.

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Well, Lance McGrew got Mark

Well, Lance McGrew got Mark in position to win at Dover a few weeks ago....but it sounded like Mark wasn't very happy with that no-tire call. After all, Mark has had some very bad hits there. Still a win is a win....
But agreed, Mark hasn't had a great season. Of course most of the RH guys have struggled.

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