- Associated Press - Saturday, June 11, 2011

LONG POND, PA. (AP) - Here’s a shift at Pocono Raceway: Drivers can again shift gears on the demanding triangle track after a six-year hiatus where the move all but went away.

“There has been some confusion that shifting was not allowed at Pocono and that isn’t true,” said NASCAR Sprint Cup series director John Darby. “The real reason shifting stopped at Pocono was because gear ratios weren’t compatible for shifting.”

Drivers have attempted shifting very rarely and with no success at Pocono since 2005. That’s when a change in the gearing rule prevented downshifting in the sharp turns on the triangular layout. The 2 1/2-mile triangular track was unique on the circuit because the drivers shifted as if they were on a road course.

Drivers used downshifting to gain quick acceleration exiting the sharp turns. The rule is designed to cut rpm and reduce the number of engine failures. Drivers suddenly had to get used to the difficulty of passing without the sudden burst of power provided by downshifting.

Not this year. Darby said transmission gear ratios were changed to make it easier on engines and give teams a better opportunity to use third gear.

“I feel like I have an opportunity to grab that third gear to get a little bit better launch up off the corner,” said four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon. “t challenges you in a way, as a driver and the team, to work on the car to be able to do that. And so I think that just kind of adds another set of skills in there.”

Not all drivers feel shifting will make a difference.

“It will be the same as it was last year,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Take last year’s race and replay it and just imagine all the drivers are shifting.”


HAAS TO GO: Tony Stewart has no wins and only one top-five finish. It’s certainly not the kind of season expected out of the two-time Cup champion, so he knew he needed to make a change.

Stewart this week released Bobby Hutchens as director of competition at Stewart-Haas Racing. Hutchens held his job since 2009, when he left his longtime role with Richard Childress Racing.

“We just feel like we’re not headed in the direction we want,” Stewart said at Pocono Raceway. “We’ve got to make a change in that direction. I can promise you it’s one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

Stewart promoted Matt Borland to vice president of competition. Borland has been with Stewart-Haas Racing since its inception as technical director.

“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,” Stewart said.

Stewart and teammate Ryan Newman are in the top 10 in the points standings, but have struggled lately. Newman has one finish better than 14th since Martinsville in early April.


SAFER POCONO: Pocono Raceway is a safer track.

The facility underwent a multimillion-dollar project late last year that made significant safety upgrades, including a soft-wall barrier and catch fence. The new fence runs from the end of the front stretch and connects with the existing catch fence in Turn 2. The 6,155-foot fence surrounds the entire 2.5-mile race track.

The SAFER barrier runs on the entire length of the inside of the track from the exit of Turn 1 to the entrance of Turn 3 for a total of 5,516 feet. Pocono Raceway already has soft-wall barriers at each of the track’s three turns.

“That SAFER barrier is new generation,” track president Brandon Igdalsky said. “It’s cool, freestanding stuff. It’s pretty wild.”

A series of scary wrecks over the last few years made Igdalsky realize it was time to act. He listened to responses from NASCAR and drivers who long complained the triangle track was unsafe, but NASCAR never forced the safety changes.

“They don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do this,’” Igdalsky said. “They leave it up to the tracks to do what needs to be done and it’s up to us to do what needs to be done.”

Greg Biffle blasted the track last year, saying, “They’re going to kill somebody there.” He approved of the upgrades.

“It is probably ten years overdue,” Biffle said. “The race track, I applaud them for taking action. But there are other tracks that need to. There are a few other places that we don’t have SAFER barriers all the way around yet or on the interior part of the race track.”



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