By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
June 12, 2011 8:32 PM, EDT
LONG POND, Pa. -- After leading more laps than anyone else Sunday at Pocono Raceway, they were the last words Denny Hamlin wanted to hear over the radio: "Drive it to the truck." He maneuvered his crippled No. 11 car behind the team transporter in the garage area, slipped out from behind the wheel, and took a long walk around a vehicle that under other circumstances may very well have wound up in Victory Lane. Hamlin's crewmen reached underneath the car and yanked out shreds of rubber and metal fibers that had once been a tire, and a pungent burning smell filled the air.
"It was fast. It was extremely fast," Hamlin said of a vehicle that led 76 laps but wound up 19th after suffering an unusual flat tire while leaving pit road. "That's encouraging, in the sense that we had a new car here. The best of the best. And it was the best at the beginning. We just didn't have a smooth day. Nothing really went smooth for us today."
I want to thank NASCAR for having us shift about 100 times [Sunday]. I really appreciate that.
-- TONY STEWARTDon't be fooled. Pocono Raceway can be a bucolic and enamoring place, with all the trees that line the straightaways, and the forested mountain setting, and so many eccentric local touches like the world's longest restroom or the bugler that sounds the call to the post prior to every event. It's a charming, quirky race track that since its inception has been operated by the same family, who instill within it both a sense of history and a sense of humor. But once the cars roll onto that long, wide frontstretch the place turns into a butcher, hacking away at equipment like a bad mechanic.
That was never more the case than Sunday, when a rule change to allow drivers more gear-shifting freedom coupled with the track's usual punishing nature resulted in engine failures, transmission issues, fuel-mile guesses and dashed hopes. There were no crashes in Sunday's event -- there was only one spin, that by Greg Biffle, and it didn't even merit a caution on this gigantic 2.5-mile layout -- but there was plenty of trouble. And nobody found more of it than Hamlin, who early on appeared en route to another victory at the track where he'd won four times previously, and instead wound up burning the wrong kind of rubber.
As has happened so many times to last year's series runner-up, it all started in the pits. Hamlin emerged third after a round of yellow-flag stops following a caution for debris, but didn't even make it back onto the race track before his new left-rear tire had gone flat. Something had nicked the valve stem, and the air rushed out like deer fleeing a forest fire. Before he could get back around, the rubber carcass had lodged itself inside the wheel well housing, severed the rear brake line, and turned a once-promising day into a miserable one.
"The valve stem actually sheared off of it," Hamlin said. "It could be the tire changer's gun was there when I took off. That would shear it. Other than that, it's tough to say what else would do that."
It happened Sunday, on a track that can take a heavy toll on equipment regardless of whether the problem begins on pit road. Watching 500 miles on a triangular circuit where the straightaways are long enough to land a Boeing 737 can turn a crew chief's hair gray even under normal circumstances. And then you factor in the element of shifting -- beginning with this race, NASCAR allowed new gear ratios at Pocono that gave drivers more shifting options -- and you have more mechanical parts that can bend to the will of three and a half hours in Long Pond, and potentially break.
That's evidently what happened to the two cars from Stewart-Haas Racing, which both lost third gear. "I want to thank NASCAR for having us shift about 100 times [Sunday]. I really appreciate that," an aggravated Tony Stewart remarked at one point over the radio. No. 14 crew chief Darian Grubb didn't know the exact nature of the failures, but he knew it was the shifting that caused them. "The shifting just makes it that much worse," he said. "More parts than can break."
And break they did. Marcos Ambrose had a transmission problem. Juan Montoya's transmission faltered late in the race. Brad Keselowski broke a rear shock mount. His team fixed it, and it broke again. Jamie McMurray wound up in the garage with a transmission failure. Carl Edwards lost an engine, which crew chief Bob Osborne said wasn't related to shifting but a valve failure. Pocono can take that toll. "The length of the race track and the number of miles we run here," he said, "it's hard on equipment, whether we're shifting or not."
The shifting made fuel mileage calculations a moving target for crew chiefs trying to figure out how much their drivers were working the gearshifts -- the less shifting they did, the better fuel mileage they got. A potential problem loomed each time a driver worked the gears. "If you miss a shift, yeah, it can do a lot of damage," Osborne said. "There's just more risk anytime you try to shift gears. You take a chance at hurting the drive train, transmission, gears, so on and so forth. And then you have the potential for missing the shift, which can hurt the engine. But these guys are pros. They make mistakes sometimes too, and you saw that today."
Jeff Gordon stayed mistake-free, and he won the race as a result. But even he admitted that the shifting made "survival more important" and allowed more room for error. Which is why crew chief Alan Gustafson was so concerned coming to a race track that can be so hard on parts and pieces to begin with.
"A track this size is usually a speedway plate race, where you don't ever brake until you come to pit road. You don't ever accelerate. This has so many attributes to it that make it so difficult," Gustafson said. "The driver has to be able to put everything together and take care of their stuff. Jeff's really good at that, and good on equipment. Shifting, we haven't done that in a while consistently, with different gear ratios. To win in this sport, you have to have everything on the edge, and we had everything on the edge. When you have that ... you definitely are concerned."
With good reason, as so many of his competitors discovered. Foremost among them was Hamlin, who could only offer a resigned smile as the smell of a charred tire wafted up from underneath his race car. "It was immediately flat when I left pit road," Hamlin said. "That's just a fluke thing that kind of never happens." Except at Pocono, where the trees, charm, history and hospitality obscure a place that doesn't need a single crash to ruin many a driver's day.