As if the season's races weren't tricky enough to predict already, here's a “new” track thrown into the mix. OK, not quite new, but bear in mind that Josef Newgarden wasn't even born when Danny Sullivan won the last IndyCar race here at Pocono Raceway in 1989, and Mrs. Rahal was still pregnant with Graham when Bobby won the year before, and you get some idea of how off-the-radar this venue has been for the current crop of drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series.
“The Tricky Triangle” may be one of the most unimpressive nicknames of any circuit in U.S. motorsport – it's doesn't leave Dover's “Monster Mile” or Darlington's “Lady in Black” quaking in their boots, does it? – but it's nonetheless apt. When even a guy as ballsy as reigning Indy 500 champion Tony Kanaan admits it took a little while to get confident at Pocono, you get the feeling that this could be one of the most demanding tracks on the IndyCar schedule, for drivers and race engineers alike.
Some years ago, Mario Andretti told me that he'd heard the reason that each of the corners on this tri-oval differed in shape and nature was because the construction companies that built the facility kept going out of business and, consequently, each turn was built by a different outfit.
Whether that's true or not, there's no doubt that each of the turns presents a different challenge, and it's impossible to find a good setup for more than two corners; the third one will always be a compromise.
Brad Goldberg, Chip Ganassi Racing's race engineer on Charlie Kimball's car, says: “Pocono closely resembles Indianapolis in terms of banking and straight speeds. Turn 1 [14-degree banking] is the highest G corner where we pull just over 4G. Turn 2 [nine-degree] is the lowest G and the shortest. Turn 3 [six-degree] is the longest corner of the three.
“An area of interest will be the entrance to Turn 1, where right at the apex of the corner there are a series of ripply bumps that sets the car off in a wavy pattern. There are other bumps around the track but the Turn 1 washboard seems to have the biggest influence on handling. In qualifying it will be critical to navigate the car through this area and still have the ability to carry the throttle all the way through the corner.
“We will see speeds just over 220mph, on both the front straight and the straight leading into Turn 2. During the race it is critical to have the correct gearing in the car as we will be shifting almost/if not every lap. It will be important to not have too tall gearing so you can get a run on a guy going into Turn 2, but you don't want to be too short as you will lose revs going into the next gear, causing the car to bog down and preventing you from passing the guy in front of you.”
Tony Kanaan never needs any extra incentive to go after a victory, but he's got a million reasons to care more about this race, Part 2 of the Fuzzy's Vodka Triple Crown. As winner of the Indianapolis 500, he's the only man who can grab the $1 million on offer for the driver who takes all three of the “endurance” races on the IndyCar calendar (Fontana 500 at year's end is the third). The Pocono 400 is 100 miles shy of its brethren for the sake of the ABC TV windows, but 400 miles around here is probably as tough as 500 elsewhere, so we won't argue.
It's appropriate that Kanaan's KV Racing machine is this weekend covered in the Sunoco sponsorship carried by the event itself, but what are his chances? Well, second fastest in the open test on Thursday suggests TK is on the money pace-wise, and there's no doubt that on a strange and unfamiliar circuit, although everyone theoretically starts from ground zero, it's the series veterans who have the edge, and not just on one lap pace. As the track surface evolves and gains more rubber throughout the race, those who can best use their in-cockpit tools and adapt are the ones that are going to be at the forefront. As a 14-year vet, Kanaan has a strong chance to take another step toward wiping a seven-figure sum from Fuzzy Zoeller's bank account.
OK, so Long Pond, Pa., isn't quite his hometown, but Marco Andretti lives just 30 miles south in Nazareth and with the demise of his more local speedway, this is as close as he'll get to a home race. And he's responding well, so far, sitting P1 in testing, a full 1mph clear of his closest pursuer, Kanaan. This will not be a walkover, with the vagaries of yellow flags and variable strategies thrown in the mix, but he's confident, he's (as ever) determined and if there's any driver who is intimidated by nothing and no one, it's him.
Now, throw into the mix that he has a sense of urgency about getting his championship hopes back on track. Electrical maladies sidelined him at Milwaukee and the races either side – Texas and Iowa – looked massively promising but were ruined by pit stop and handling problems, respectively. Given that Marco has an Andretti Autosport teammate just ahead of him (Ryan Hunter-Reay) and just behind (James Hinchcliffe) in the championship table, and all three currently trail Team Penske's Helio Castroneves, there may come a time soon when Michael Andretti starts expecting (if not specifically ordering) two to help the other. Marco will surely want to give his dad a headache of deciding whether to put all his backing behind one or delay that decision until the last couple of races.
And the joy for the fans is that three-time winner Hinchcliffe will have similar thoughts, while Hunter-Reay will want to make himself the clear AA favorite. They may be getting along just great, but you can bet there's a tasty intrateam rivalry brewing here.
GANASSI ON THE FLAT
Chip Ganassi Racing went and tested at Sebring right after their Iowa debacle, where Dario Franchitti had a good Honda in a bad car, Scott Dixon had the opposite. Primarily, of course, the test was for a performance benefit in the string of road and street courses coming up, but it would be nice to imagine that a bumpy and flat road course might also help the team learn a little more about their shock and damper setup on a (relatively) flat and bumpy oval.
Certainly something needs to be done soon if Dixon isn't to fall out of the championship race completely. He was fastest of the Honda runners here in testing on Thursday and, as I often say, he's the great improviser if the car goes tail-happy on worn tires. Also, if he achieves the usual balance at Pocono of getting a good setup for two turns and has to muddle through the other, well, there's no better muddler than Dixie. But when the field is as close as it is in 2013, it only takes one driver to find a marginal edge and that advantage is exaggerated and he or she enters another league (see Castroneves at Texas, or Mike Conway at Detroit, race 1). And in a list of drivers likely to find that state of nirvana in any given race this year, Dixie isn't high.
For Franchitti, the chance of a fifth IndyCar Series title has surely gone, for this year at least, but there's the small matter of pride at stake here, too. He drove as hard as we've ever seen him drive at Texas this year, so he's clearly not daunted by anything, but inevitably after Iowa there were people asking, “What's happened to Dario?” and one even commented, “He looks like a guy on his way to retirement.” I'm 90 percent certain this isn't so, and I'm 100 percent certain that he will soon remind people that he's a strong force. But for reasons discussed after Iowa, it may not be until Mid-Ohio that we see him contend for victory once more.
ALSO LOOK OUT FOR...
• The three-by-three rolling start not causing any problem. Pocono is plenty wide enough to handle this format and providing the pace car pulls off early enough, by the time the field makes it down to Turn 1, they will already have strung out quite safely.
• Ed Carpenter to contend for a top-three position; by the final stint at Iowa, he was as fast as anyone and he looked quick in testing here.
• Ryan Briscoe charging from the back in the Panther Racing entry. He misses qualifying because he's driving for Level 5 Motorsport in the American Le Mans Series race at Lime Rock on Saturday. You might think that Panther should have chosen Oriol Servia to drive at Pocono but, hey, why take the easy choice? Anyway, Briscoe's test pace looked respectable, so he'll be fun to watch on Sunday.
• Pippa Mann's return. The revolving door cut into the side of Dale Coyne Racing's No. 18 car has once more stopped to allow fan favorite Pippa to jump in. The Cyclops Gear-funded driver was only one second slower around Pocono than Andretti in testing and completed a confidence-boosting 146 laps.