Pocono primed for Winston Cup's return By Dave Rodman LONG POND, Pa. (July 20, 2000) Pocono Raceway had a bang-up finish, literally, a little more than a month ago in the Pocono 500. So track owner Dr. Joe Mattioli is not out of line...
Pocono primed for Winston Cup's return
By Dave Rodman
LONG POND, Pa. (July 20, 2000) Pocono Raceway had a bang-up finish, literally, a little more than a month ago in the Pocono 500. So track owner Dr. Joe Mattioli is not out of line in expecting more of the same when the NASCAR Winston Cup Series lines up for Sunday's $2,658,590 Pennsylvania 500 presented by America Online at 1:05 p.m. ET (live TV, TBS; live radio on the affiliate network of MRN Radio, 12:30 p.m. ET).
In June, a tenuous lead by seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and a chance for a victory disappeared upon delivery in the final corner of a deftly-placed love tap from winner Jeremy Mayfield's Mobil 1 Ford's front bumper to the left rear fender of Earnhardt's GM Goodwrench Service Plus Chevrolet.
Mattioli and his staff capitalized on the stunning outcome by designing a Pennsylvania 500 advertising campaign centered on the bump titled "Act I, The Feud."
"There was absolutely a big jump Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday following the last race," Mattioli said earlier this week. "A couple days later I went to Daytona and the first thing they told me was thanks for pumping up their ticket sales for the Pepsi 400.
"Our place lends itself to that kind of competition because of the difference in the straightaways, the radius of the turns and the degrees of banking. You can't set yourself up for the whole track -- in one lap you'll see multiple lead changes occur."
The track's triangular layout certainly produces competition, as 1999's race that had 24 lead changes among 11 drivers. Since the inaugural NASCAR Winston Cup Series event in 1974 at the triangular 2.5-mile speedway in the Pocono Mountain resort area, its unique configuration has produced countless surprises -- and surprise endings.
Since the last event Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart have won NASCAR Winston Cup races. They won't be the only ones who are competitive this weekend.
"We showed we had the car to beat last month," Earnhardt said of his ultimate fourth place finish. "We're bringing that same car back with us. The guys have tweaked on it a little and it's ready to go."
"It's such a different race track, it takes a combination of everything," said defending NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett, who won this event in 1995 and 1997. "Obviously, you have to have a good handling race car. Because of the long straightaway on the frontstretch you have to have a car that is good aerodynamically and you have to have a strong engine to get down the straightaways."
Jarrett's Robert Yates Racing Quality Care Service/Ford Credit Taurus has proven to have the trademark Yates horsepower in ample supply. And Jarrett and his Todd Parrott-led crew have proven they have what it takes to excel at Pocono.
"It takes a total package, but the handling is the key," Jarrett said. "You can be off in some of the other areas but if you can get through the corners that will make things better for you in the long run. It is a total package."
The 45-car Pocono entry will begin working on that package in a three-hour practice session on Friday from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. ET. Bud Pole Award Qualifying to set the top-25 starters is scheduled for 3 p.m. ET on Friday. Rusty Wallace set the track qualifying record in June with his lap of 52.440 seconds, an average speed of 171.625 mph in his Miller Lite Ford.
On Saturday morning, 80 more minutes of practice from 9:30-10:50 a.m. ET will warm up the competitors for Bud Second-Round Qualifying, which will set the 43-car field at 11:30 a.m. ET.
Happy Hour practice to dial-in the final race set-ups for Sunday's Pennsylvania 500 will be held following Saturday's preliminary ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series event, time permitting.
When all is said and done the stretch run to the NASCAR Winston Cup championship has begun, and it is more than a five-horse race. With 16 races remaining Bobby Labonte, who swept both Pocono rounds a year ago in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac, holds a 45-point lead over seven-time NWC champion Dale Earnhardt, who is straining to break a tie with Richard Petty at seven titles.
Jarrett is third in the standings, 68 points behind Labonte. He heads a five-driver pack that includes Ward Burton, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Ricky Rudd, who are all within 183 points of Jarrett. However, only seven points separate positions four to seven in the point standings.
Labonte, Earnhardt and Jarrett are the drivers with a shot at a record NASCAR Winston Cup Leader Bonus of $180,000 that would go to any driver who could win the race and lead the NWC point standings following the Pennsylvania 500.
"Last time here we had one get away from us and finished fourth," Earnhardt said. "All in all we lost about 15 points on the final rundown, but that's what NASCAR racing is all about -- good, solid racing."
And one other thing Pocono has concentrated on in the last 10 years is improving its "fan friendly" image. Mattioli said the track undertook a 10-year program based on "Pocono PFC."
"We want Pocono to be pretty, friendly and clean," said Mattioli, who typically spends a good portion of each weekend strolling parts of the track's 1500-acre property chatting with many of his guests. "It's taken us 10 years and just now it's coming to a head."
That's not all Mattioli has up his sleeve. He said the track is concentrating on retrieving a "state fairgrounds atmosphere" that he said used to exist in auto racing.
"We're bringing in clowns and jugglers, we've got loads of picnic tables and gazebos and a number of different bands -- polka bands, Dixieland, the Mummers from Philadelphia," Mattioli the consummate promoter said. "We've got a 1,500-foot x 100-foot midway and the world's longest toilet facility -- 1500 feet long with 1,000 stalls that can handle 20,000 people an hour."
Mattioli is rightfully proud of the progress he's made, from simple improvements such as fresh sod in parking areas to planting thousands of trees; to the impressive "long john" that he said has transformed unsettled patrons in restroom lines to happy guests at the concession stands.
"We figure we haven't yet begun to fight -- we're just starting," Mattioli said of his long-range outlook. "We were the northern outpost of NASCAR for many years. When we got our second Winston Cup race, Dover and Richmond started selling out; and when the Winston Cup Series went up to Watkins Glen and New Hampshire that's when we started selling out -- we all compliment each other."