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Track Talk: Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway

If there’s anything that separates NASCAR speedway racing from other motorsports divisions, it’s a unique 2.5-mile beast in Long Pond, PA that is said to be a “speedway that acts like a road course” or a “roval.”  With some of the longest straightaways in the Sprint Cup circuit, it’s a track that is both tempting and dangerous in terms of appearance and its challenges to the drivers and teams.

Pocono Raceway is perhaps one of the most unique venues in all of racing with three distinct corners modeled after Trenton Raceway (turn one), Indianapolis Motor Speedway (turn two), and the Milwaukee Mile (turn three).  It behaves like a road course in that drivers will be shifting gears as if it’s a race at Sonoma or Watkins Glen except they have to turn left three times (at least) in this 160-lap race (if Mother Nature isn’t a pest on Sunday).

After the longest race of the season that broke many records for most laps/miles led in the Coca-Cola 600 as well as the fastest in the event’s history, Pocono Raceway seems like a nice respite from the action at Charlotte Motor Speedway, right?  Not really.  The drop of the green flag and any ensuring restarts are bound to be as dramatic as ever with drivers willing to go four to five wide on the frontstretch before having to go double file into turn one.

While this storied track is surrounded by the beauty of Pennsylvania, it’s also home to some of the most action packed racing as well as some of the most grinding crashes in all of NASCAR.  Steve Park and Dale Earnhardt Jr had a wild ride along the Long Pond backstretch in 2002 while Ken Schrader and Jeff Gordon both felt the wrath of the turn one wall in 2003 and ’06.  Elliott Sadler had his hardest hit possibly in his career at Pocono in 2010 that catalyzed the track into closing off the unusually open portions of the track where an angled accident would send a car careening from the grass and back onto the track.

Brandon Igdalsky and his staff have carried on the Pocono legacy and tradition in fine fashion as the late Dr. Joseph Matolli did in his tenure.  Undoubtedly, this track is a lot safer and has been a fan favorite in terms of its location and the amenities.  Some of the most exciting races in recent NASCAR history have taken place here including the duel between Kasey Kahne and Jeff Gordon in 2013, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s 2014 sweep, and the fuel mileage victory for Matt Kenseth last summer.

Think you’re ready to do some shifting while drafting your way to the front?  If you are, let’s get Track Talk started and off pit road with our TPF Track Talk team of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley HullCody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie CoppleSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley!

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Question 1
"I win! I win! Feast your eyes on this, hooligans!" - Martin Truex Jr after the race...not really. (Photo by Zach Darrow)

“I win! I win! Feast your eyes on this, hooligans!” – Martin Truex Jr after the race…not really. (Photo by Zach Darrow)

Martin Truex Jr absolutely dominated the Coca-Cola 600 by leading all but eight laps or 12 miles last Sunday evening at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  First of a two-fold question – what did this win say about Truex and his No. 78 team as a force on the Cup circuit and about their title prospects this year?

Fesko :  Truex’s dominating performance cements Furniture Row Racing as an elite team. Winning is hard, winning two years in a row is harder and winning in the way he did is almost unheard of. Even Jimmie Johnson hasn’t put in a performance this dominating. The No. 78 team is definitely a title contender this season.

Hobbs :  This win says Truex is a real factor this year. He has not only been consistent all year, but he has run up front. Clearly this change to Toyota is doing them quite well. It translate into another great shot at a title, especially being joined with JGR. If JGR or Truex does not win the championship this year, I will be pretty shocked.

Hull :  First of all, this win shows how determined Martin Truex Jr. and his team really have been to win their first race this season. As we all remember, he came within a tenth of a second of winning the Daytona 500.  Then his team had the crushing tire problem at Texas after he had dominated most of that race. I would say all of that put together, plus the fact that they lost last year’s Coke 600, really added fuel to the fire and motivated them all to win this race. It also makes Truex and his team a serious force to be reckoned with. That same determination placed them into the Championship Round last season. We are likely to see a repeat of last year from this team. This small team from Denver is here to win!

Cassidy :  There is no doubt that Truex and the 78 team have been competitors all year.  However, the Coca-Cola 600 was the first time they were able to close the deal with a win. The domination of this team at Charlotte shows that they are not only consistent…they have the ability to win races. Moving forward, I believe we will see this team in the final rounds for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Copple :  I was literally standing up and cheering for Martin Truex Jr. when he took the checkered last weekend! Did I mention that I was at work? Fairly certain my coworkers thought I needed to be locked in a closet. Anyway, I couldn’t have been happier for Truex and that team. They have been working so hard this season and to finally get that win, in one of the biggest races of the year, and in DOMINATING fashion as well, so deserved! I don’t think this will be the last win that we see from them this season. Moving over to the No. 78 was a great career move in 2014 and it’s showing these past couple of seasons. He’s going to be a championship contender for sure this season!

Shoppe :  That annihilation of the competition last Sunday night makes a big statement that the No. 78 team is more then just a pretty good team but as a real championship contender. When you set records like most miles led in a race ever, that sends a pretty big message to the other teams in the garage. Now that Truex Jr, Cole Pearn, and the Furniture Row team have gotten the hang of closing the deal, the competition should be worried.

Conley :  As for the 78 team, their win in the 600 indicates that they can and will overcome adversities.  They made the off season switch to Toyota and that is not typically a change that a team makes successful quickly.  Furniture Row did it and success almost immediately followed them from the start.  As for Truex, just like Sherry Pollex, he’s a fighter and now a championship contender.

Question 2
Objects in the mirror are further than they appear.

Objects in the mirror are further than they appear.

The fact that Martin Truex Jr nearly led flag-to-flag at Charlotte has NASCAR looking at the drawing board with how to improve racing at the intermediates. What exactly can NASCAR do to get their on-track product at these tracks to be more competitive at the front of the field?

Fesko :  Clean air is still important, so doing whatever it takes to mitigate the effect it has on the leader is key. That being said, Truex’s win is an anomaly – the other 1.5-mile races have been pretty good this season. Let’s enjoy the victory for what it is and revisit the topic at the end of the season when every intermediate race has been run.

Hobbs :  NASCAR is going to be going back to the drawing board after every intermediate track. Clearly, the start of the season gave us some great overall racing, but every track is different. Charlotte has always been a semi-boring race to watch because there is always a lack of passing everywhere. If NASCAR keeps putting restrictions, they might as well be IROC. I know it sucks to see domination like this by a driver, though I am glad it came from such a fantastic racer and person this time around, but not every race is going to unfold the same. Stats say the lucky number is 30 to see if things worked or not; NASCAR should just wait out the season before jumping the gun (again) on rule changes.

Hull :  This is a difficult question, since I am still finding my technical legs. I don’t think that there is anything that could be done. We have seen great racing this season for sure. I think that it was just Truex’s race to dominate, and he did exactly that. Some races are going to be somewhat boring, because of what the teams bring to the track. There was nothing that no one (except for Jimmie Johnson, who had something for him on that one restart near the end of the race). So I don’t think there was anything NASCAR could do for this one.

Cassidy :  Being at that race, I must say the 600 miles were very boring. The biggest struggle as a fan was expecting another great race like the All-Star Race, not to receive a one car domination. At this point in time, I am not sure if it is NASCAR’s fault or what they can do better to improve the competition. However, a good place to start may be the differences between the All-Star race and the Coke 600. For example, no skew vs skew, segment racing vs long green flag runs, points racing vs a million dollars. All of these elements as to how races are structured may influence the type of racing we see.

Copple :  I don’t think anything needs to change at the intermediate tracks. Truex was just THAT good! To win the Coca-Cola 600 by leading all but a handful of laps is not easy to do so basing changes off of this race would be foolish. Keep the racing the way it is for once!

Shoppe :  I think if NASCAR decides to make major changes of any kind to the rules due to one race’s domination, that would be a huge overreaction. I would like to think their memories are too short to forget the fantastic racing this season. The close finishes, side-by-side racing, and positive fan reactions shouldn’t be forgotten because of one race. Let’s wait and see how the next few races go. The current package will have a big test this weekend at Pocono, a track that rarely produces thrilling racing. Maybe if racing doesn’t improve after the next few races, they can think about making some minor tweaks, but let’s not go fixing what isn’t necessarily broken just yet.

Conley :  I’ll say was a fluke for the intermediates.  As for the aero package, I’m waiting to see what the new changes at Michigan and Kentucky will bring us.  I don’t like testing new aero rules out in the All-Star Race as these cars are typically one off designed cars for short runs, not your long run/full races.  Let’s revisit this after Michigan.

Question 3
Weekend off thanks to lug nuts for two crew chiefs.

Weekend off thanks to lug nuts for two crew chiefs.

Greg Biffle’s crew chief Brian Pattie landed a P3 penalty for failing postrace chassis measurement following the Coca-Cola 600 which resulted in a two race suspension.  Meanwhile, the lug nut rule recently landed Randall Burnett (AJ Allmendinger’s crew chief) and Tony Gibson (Kurt Busch’s crew chief) P3 penalties which resulted in a $20,000 fine and a one race suspension for Burnett and Gibson.  Are these infractions sound enough where teams will think twice about the price of pushing the envelope, at least on these fronts?

Fesko :  It shows the NASCAR is absolutely serious about the lug nut rule, so teams will think twice before trying to skirt the issue. That said, who’s to say that tire changers weren’t the ones making the call rather than the crew chief? Why not suspend and fine them as well to stop the infraction at ground zero?

Hobbs :  What I think is more of an issue here is that Kyle Busch’s crew chief AND front tire changer both got suspended for this same infraction, so why do Burnett and Gibson only get suspended and not the tire changer? I am assuming NASCAR saw Busch’s tire changer do something no to their liking.  I personally would also like to know were they missing a lug nut? Was a lug not “not tight enough?” I still think there is gray in this area.

Hull :  I think that these rules are way too stringent. Yeah, since they are harsh, maybe it will make them think about it more. But this is why there are a lot of empty stands at race tracks and why ratings have been down. People are tired of these overly harsh rules, and moreover, how little they are being enforced to begin with. I think that this is too much. There are still tire problems even though this has been in effect. So, they should have left this one alone.

Cassidy :  I am still torn on the lug nut issue. I think it was wrong of NASCAR to allow teams to have any kind of play when it comes to how many lug nuts are done up on the cars. It is unsafe and puts fans, teams, and drivers in a dangerous place. With that being sad, since Tony Stewart brought up this issue, NASCAR has taken extreme precautions to ensure all lug nuts are done up. On NASCAR’s side, they should have never changed the rules in the first place, but when we are looking at teams, every second counts. Although a second or two may count on the racetrack, at the same time, this could create an unsafe situation for our sport, which creates a major problem.

Copple :  Can NASCAR just STOP changing the lug nut rules? It seems like they are different going into almost every race. The last rule, where there wasn’t one was working just fine in my opinion. Teams could push the envelope but if it didn’t work, they were penalized by a loose tire or a blown tire. NASCAR needs to leave well enough alone and stick to one rule. Make up your mind and leave it for the season!

Shoppe :  I think these penalties are getting out of hand. To an extent, you can argue that penalties like these are necessary to protect teams from themselves as we have hear over and over for months now. But I still have a hard time agreeing with suspensions of crew chiefs for something that could very well be an accident. For Kurt Busch’s team, they actually had all the lug nuts on the wheel but one wasn’t tight enough for NASCAR’s liking. I think this has gone too far and they need to go back to the way they have always policed loose lug nuts for years. We need to be talking about the excitement of the racing instead of mandatory post-race “nut checks”.

Conley :  The penalties are sound.  The problem is you’ve opened up “Pandora’s Box” and according to a pit crew coach that I’ve talked to, it’s difficult for teams to get that “five off, four on” feel out of their heads.  Pit crews are competitors as much, if not, more so than the drivers.  They are pushing and pushing to knock off thousandths of a second and when the opportunity presents itself to skip and pick up, it’s hard to get that idea out of your head.  Risk versus reward is trying to get balanced out.

Pocono, Michigan, and Sonoma this month...peace, wolverines, and wine.

Pocono, Michigan, and Sonoma this month…peace, wolverines, and wine.

Question 4
This month sees the Cup circuit take up the tracks at Pocono, Michigan, and Sonoma which could really shake things up for our Chase field.  Are there any particular drivers in mind who’ll likely sweat things out before the Race to the Chase in terms of their playoff chances?

Fesko :   Thirteen of the 16 current Chasers have been in the playoffs before and know how to handle the next few weeks. It’s the first-timers like Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Austin Dillon that are the most nervous as they’ve never been in this position before. Elliott, in particular, as he hasn’t run at Pocono other than in ARCA. Should be interesting to see where these three are following the stretch.

Hobbs :  Pocono could open the door for Larson (finally… again) or even Chase Elliott. Michigan will probably play to the veteran favorites, and Sonoma really opens the door for a lot of drivers, mainly The Dinger. I hope we go into this summer month and see 3 different race winners which will tighten the ever so shrinking “get into the chase on points” field. More drama baby!!!

Hull :  I think that there are some drivers who really need to step things up and either win a race, or maintain their consistency before the Chase is imminent. One of those drivers, who surprisingly has yet to win a points race, is Joey Logano. There is a real possibility that he could win Michigan. He is really strong there. Also, Kurt Busch needs to win a race to get into the Chase. He could very well win at any of the next tracks. Dale Jr. could also use a win, and he could do it at Pocono this weekend, where he is really strong! We shall wait and see how this whole thing shakes out! It will be a lot of pressure until the end!

Cassidy :  Currently, Dale Jr and Joey Logano have to be the two drivers with the most pressure on their plates to make it into the Chase. First, Dale Jr, being the most popular driver for years on end is no walk in the park nor is not winning races.  Junior always has a lot of weight on him to perform well.  For this reason, the month of June gives Dale the chance to win on a few tracks he’s been good at. Secondly, for Logano, he’s coming off of six wins last season; not having a points win is hurting Joey. I believe the All-Star Race gave the team the motivation to go out and win a race to lock their position in the Chase. June also has tracks that will give Joey and the 22 team good opportunities to get that win.

Copple :  There are still a lot of drivers looking for wins and time is running out! I think we will see some great on-track battles these next few weeks as we get closer and closer to the Chase. Drivers like Kurt Bush, Joey Logano, and Dale Jr are still winless this season. While they are high enough in points at the moment, that could all change come Chase time. I’m also looking at Chase Elliott. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit to see him in Victory Lane at one of these upcoming races. I’m extremely excited to see him at Sonoma!

Shoppe :  The answer is all of the above! Each of the three very different tracks can shake up the current chase complexion. Pocono and Michigan have been notorious for fuel mileage finishes that could open the door to pretty much anyone stealing a win and a Chase spot away. Sonoma, our first road course of the year, is the race I am looking forward to the most to see if an upset winner can emerge and get into the chase. Can AJ Allmendinger work through the pressure to win on the road course as expected? Or can Kyle Larson finally break through and win? If either or both happen in the next few weeks, we will be looking at a very different Chase Grid as we get closer to September.

Conley :  I think the rookies of Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney have to be on that list as well as Ryan Newman. Elliott and Blaney have been good enough to not only stay in that top-16 but to go and contend for wins.  So missing the Chase would be a disappointment for them at this point.  For Newman, he has to show success if he wants to keep that 31 ride.  I think this year is pivotal for Newman and that starts with the winning in the summer stretch and making the Chase.

We’ve tackled the four storylines for Pocono and this new month of NASCAR racing.  Before we reveal our picks for today’s race, let’s review how we all fared at Charlotte with our Coca-Cola 600 report and the points standings heading into Pocono!
Hull found her way once more into Victory Lane...

Hull found her way once more into Victory Lane…

...Cassidy still enjoys her points lead parlayed by consistency.

…Cassidy still enjoys her points lead parlayed by consistency.

It’s about that time to let the raptors loose!  OK, not really since Jurassic World is probably a bad idea.  A good idea is us revealing our race picks for today’s Axalta  “We Paint Winners” 400 at Pocono Raceway!
Apparently these are the drivers' Mortal Kombat character selection portraits.

Apparently these are the drivers’ Mortal Kombat character selection portraits.

Tiongson :  I’m going with a different route this weekend and instead of going off stats, I’ll be whimsical here.  If the 24 team’s still got it at Pocono, I’m certain that Chase Elliott may have what it takes to win this Sunday with a little help from Mother Nature (if we race Sunday).

Fesko :  Martin Truex Jr repeats at Pocono and gets his second-consecutive win of 2016.

Hobbs :  The stats say to roll out the red carpet for none other than Jimmie Johnson, but I am going with a driver who is batting 100% in top 10 finishes at Pocono’s June event (average finish of 6.5), and an overall Pocono average finish of 9th.  This driver has also shown a lot of speed lately and I hope he can finally earn his first win. Who is this mystery driver you ask? None other than Kyle Larson!  

Hull :  I am going to go with Kyle Larson with this race, since he has been on a tear here lately. He is due for his very first Cup race!

Cassidy :  Dale Earnhardt Jr is my pick.

Copple :  I’ll be going with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Conley :  Pocono could be about strategy and racing to halfway. I’m going with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Shoppe :  Brad Keselowski gets the win at Pocono.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team. The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson is a 30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught his eyes. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by him or by one of his talented columnists who have a passion for racing. Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. He enjoys editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography. Moreover, he enjoys time with his family and friends, traveling, cooking, working out and being a fun uncle or "funcle" to his nephew, niece and cat. Tiongson, a graduate of Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication, pursues his Master of Arts in Digital Journalism at St. Bonaventure University. Indeed, while Tiongson is proud to be from Massachusetts, he's an everywhere kind of man residing in Texas.

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