It wouldn't be appropriate to make light of the realities of living in Long Pond, Pennsylvania, a town where "payday" literally comes on the two weekends when one is able to sell parking in his/her front yard for the big NASCAR race.
At least they have their big NASCAR race, though.
Somewhere in between forests, Dollar General stores, more forests, more forests, rundown ski resorts, and billboards advertising late 80s General Motors products as new (well, then again, the 2010 Chevrolet Impala isn't exactly forward progress from late 80s GM products), lies a 2.5-mile oval (or perhaps a road course with three sweeping left turns), initially intended for IndyCars.
With different length straights, different length and banked corners, setting cars up for Pocono is a massive challenge for even the most experienced and well-budgeted teams. Overtaking can be difficult, but very impressive when it happens, unlike at some of the NASCAR ovals where free passes occur at full throttle without shifting or braking.
When the NASCAR tour comes through Long Pond, two things are certain: Nowhere, Pennsylvania becomes the epitome of everything both right and wrong with U.S. culture, an over-the-top gathering of the most colorful and spirited motoring enthusiasts that, if nothing else, injects considerable life in a sleepy town. The other thing? Rain.
After a brief delay for inclement weather, driver introductions began, with drivers called one at a time to find out for the zillionth time just how popular or unpopular they really are.
Or in P.J. Jones' case, just how indifferent everyone is. I am honestly convinced that in a crowd of 150-200k, Jones heard me clapping, because absolutely no one else had any reaction. Perhaps rightfully slow; Jones was parked for going "too slow" before he could park his own car (as he would have had to do to a lack of funding for tires).
Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya led the field into turn one, beginning a race that featured just about everything....
Sleeping on COTs
The Pennsylvania 500 ultimately made a compelling case for the Car of Tomorrow (it's hilariously reflective of the sport to refer to the present vehicle as the future one; technological progress, rightfully or wrongfully, has been shunned for quite some time. Fuel injection could appear in 2012), as highlighted later in this post.
Unfortunately, though, the safety features cannot be included in a vehicle that races well.
Not too long ago, Pocono produced fantastic racing, such as the 2001 edition of the race, where Bobby Labonte pulled off an unbelievable pass for the win with just a few laps remaining, utilizing the unloved outside groove and holding it flat in a corner normally preceded by heavy braking.
For a large portion of the 2010 race, though, the field ran single-file, no one even in overtaking distance, as Jimmie Johnson pulled away to a 6-second lead.
It puts fans in a bad place.
They need safety cars to bunch the cars up and produce action, yet no one wants to watch safety car periods and see "fake" excitement.
After all, the appeal of Pocono is that it does require skill to pass.
NASCAR needs to find a balance; shorter races would force drivers to race harder early, yet wouldn't make passing any easier or less legitimate.
In racing and life, some calls are correct. Others don't work out.
Juan Pablo Montoya seems to have been stuck with an abundance of the latter, as weeks of impressive runs have gone for naught, ending in utter disaster.
With a strong car all race, Montoya ran solidly in the sixth when he was forced to pit due to a problem (being at the track, I never quite gathered what. Perhaps a vibration), sending him deep into the pack. Luckily for Team Target, the safety car came out just a few laps later, and when the entire field pitted, Montoya assumed the lead.
A true racer, Montoya battled hard with Jeff Gordon to maintain the top spot, using the less-preferred high groove to fend off the much stronger 24 car for a quite a few laps.
Finally, a race!
Montoya continued to hold his own, though eventually faded outside of podium contention as Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin began to take the fight to Gordon.
On lap 164, however, the complexion of the race changed massively, when Kurt Busch and Elliott Sadler wrecked, with Sadler recording the heaviest impact since NASCAR began verifying crash data (Sadler is the blue 19; you can't really see what happened as the cameras were focused on Busch).
That is the engine, for the record.
With rain in the area and a red flag displayed, teams were geared up for the final pit stop. Last weekend in Indy, Montoya's crew chief, Brian Pattie, chose to take four tires on the car's last service, sending the dominant Colombian deep in the field as most of the front-runners opted for just two. A day that easily should have been Juan Pablo's ended in a wreck battling mid-pack late in the going.
Surely, then, the team would take two this time.
Pattie decided to go with four, even though Montoya wanted just half that, a move that prompted J.P.M. to yell "screw you" over the radio, among other things not quite aired.
The rattled Montoya, like every other weekend, failed to move back up in the order.
Is Montoya in the wrong for over-reacting? Sure, but Montoya's Montoya. He's always been who he is, and that's not going to change this late in his career.
Pattie best be aware: if Montoya wants two tires, you give him two tires. And if you don't, you better take your headset off immediately after.
Montoya and Pattie's driver/crew chief relationship certainly prompted a lot of discussion, but the dynamic of Greg Biffle and Greg Erwin deserved more.
Throughout the day, Erwin played with tire strategy, just taking two tires each time and allowing Biffle to run in clean air at the front of the field.
The two fell back each time, but patiently worked with the car, developing the ideal set-up for a half-new half-worn tire-clad car, setting up for the final stint, where they'd be up against an entire field of two-tire runners.
During the extended clean-up of the Sadler wreck, rains came, prompting a second red flag. Penske driver Sam Hornish, Jr. found himself in the lead, thanks to pit strategy.
With the race well past the halfway mark, the rains easily could have ended the race, something crew chief Travis Geisler had mixed emotions about. As a former driver himself, and a race fan in general, Geisler hoped to see the race run in its entirety, yet knew how important inheriting a victory would be.
In 2011, Shell/Pennzoil will join Team Penske, rendering a longtime relationship with ExxonMobil over. Without the Mobil 1 funding, and with Hornish having failed to score a single top ten finish thus far, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion faces uncertainty heading into the next season.
Both fortunately and unfortunately for Geisler, the rains eased, and the track was dried. Geisler set his driver up for a career-saving run, and now Hornish would have to earn it.
Get Back, Jack...to the Track
After a second plane crash in a decade for renowned team owner and Mustang tuner Jack Roush, Roush's four drivers were forced to run without the guidance of their superior.
Roush's recovery became considerably less painful, however, as Greg Biffle overtook Hornish for the lead and held on to win, thanks to a day of testing two tire setups.
Tony Stewart would charge from tenth to second in the final stint, leading another Roush driver, Carl Edwards, to the line. Early factors Hamlin, Gordon, and Johnson found themselves fifth, sixth, and tenth respectively, while the rains didn't ease on Hornish's future as the 77 car plummeted from first to eleventh in the last stages of the race.
It was Biffle's first victory since 2008 and fifteenth of his career, and a popular one at that. While Biffle was wilder in the olden days, he's matured into one of the most likable competitors in the sport, donating a lot of money and, more importantly, time to his love for animals, supporting the Animal Adoption League, humane societies, spay and neuter clinics, and no-kill animal shelters with the Greg Biffle Foundation.
If Brian Pattie and Juan Pablo Montoya don't get their sh*t together, Chip Ganassi will keep giving the top equipment to the extremely likable and easy-to-work-with Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 champion Jamie McMurray. As he should. Pattie needs to work with Montoya, and Montoya needs to learn to control his emotions. Restarting eleventh won't kill your race; restarting eleventh while screaming cusses over your radio and focusing on slagging your team rather than racing will.
Greg Biffle solidifies his spot in the Chase, meaning he could become the first man to win the title in the Sprint Cup, Nationwide (think GP2), and Truck (think F3 Euroseries) series. A true testament to how healthy the ladder system once was; shame it's all gone wrong with Cup drivers running the lower divisions and depriving young drivers of seat-time, sponsorship, and futures.
Jeff Gordon's struggled to get a victory this season, but has looked stronger than teammate and four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Getting a win and peaking right around Chase time could return Gordon to title glory in his drive for five. There's a good reason why Bernie Ecclestone was willing to pay Gordon many millions to run F1 for Williams in 2003; even at 39 he's still the best driver in the United States.
NASCAR fans are an odd breed, but a lovable one. Assuming they aren't driving themselves home, they're alright. Their spirit, their passion, their pride, their obsession brings absolute magic to a small and somewhat depressing town with no economic opportunity that makes up the "other America" that feels so foreign to those from the affluent areas of the nation. I'm not one for making a sport into something more than it is, but for a silly game, for low IQ entertainment, NASCAR, with all the gimmicks, well...there's something to be said for the simplicity of the sport when the sport brings so much joy to so many people who could really use it.