By Cole Cusumano
Pocono, Penn — The track labeled the “Tricky Triangle” held true to its nickname as NASCAR Cup Series drivers had their hands full with the Next Gen car during practice and qualifying at Pocono Raceway.
Pocono is notoriously difficult due to its three, unique corners, which mirror some of the most historic venues in motorsports history (Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Milwaukee Mile and Trenton Speedway). The banking around the 2.5-mile track ranges from six degrees to 14, which makes it tough on teams to make a consistently comfortable setup for drivers throughout the day.
As has been the case for decades, Turn 3 was a major point of emphasis for drivers before hitting the track on Saturday. Also dubbed the “tunnel turn,” turn two has been barraged by weathering since the 2012 repave, making the surface incredibly bumpy and abrasive.
Given the stiff nature of the Next Gen car, which hasn’t taken well to badly weathered tracks this year, drivers were faced with a healthy dose of tunnel vision at the “Tricky Triangle.”
“Before we would just kind of either bang off the splitter or the side skirts, and now you could be hitting a shock, you could be hitting a roadblock – it would be a lot harsher,” Ryan Blaney said. “You might tiptoe through there the first couple of times to kind of see where you’re at. The crew chiefs, they try to figure out their travel [heights] right so you’re not hitting a roadblock over there, because at that speed, if you hit one of those, you’re going to have your hands full.”
This was certainly the case throughout practice and qualifying, as Ross Chastain, William Byron and Kurt Busch all lost control of their cars from the same spot exiting Turn 3. While the two Chevrolets got off relatively unscathed, the 23XI Racing driver wasn’t able to collect his Camry as well and backed it into the outside wall, sending him to a backup car.
Aric Almirola, who was 1-of-3 drivers to participate in a tire test at Pocono in May, said the car felt completely different from when he was turning laps there earlier in the year. Running non-competitively with two peers is one thing, but hitting the track at racing speed around a dozen others in practice clogged up the corners and forced many to weather the bumps in Turn 3.
“We certainly feel the bumps,” Almirola said. “With these cars and everyone trying to run so low, and the rules package, the limiters, and all the things, the ride is pretty rough.”
Ultimately, resin was applied to the surface in the corners to add more grip, but with 36 drivers competing, it’s just not feasible for everyone to utilize the preferred lane. What’s important to note about the three incidents from practice and qualifying is that the damage was self inflicted.
In an effort to simulate race conditions, all three drivers were experimenting by either dipping their left-side tires below the resin, or having running outside of it completely. Although it may have been a trial-by-error tactic, this trio may be more equipped to weather the unknown.
Seeing as not many others were comfortable getting uncomfortable in practice, the forecast could call for a boatload of mayhem in the 160-lap event.
“I do think the cars will be more on edge there, just because you’re going to be running stiff, because you want the car to load on the straightaway, so you don’t have a lot of compliance,” Corey LaJoie said. “The crew chiefs like making it really stiff and it makes them hard to drive, but it makes them go faster so there’s definitely a balance there for sure.
“I definitely think we’ll see some good side-by-side racing and some crashes – hopefully I’m not one of them – hopefully I’m towards the front by the end of it.”
You can catch the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400 from Pocono Raceway at 3 p.m. ET on USA Network.