Challenging Pocono track welcoming drivers back

Pocono Raceway's latest youth movement will take another step forward if Carl Edwards, Brian Vickers or Denny Hamlin -- or a young gun to be determined -- has anything to say about it this weekend.

Edwards won at Pocono in June 2005; "veteran" Kurt Busch did so that July; and Hamlin scored his first Nextel Cup Series win at the track this June. Vickers, meanwhile, keeps contending for wins at the triangular 2.5-mile layout but has yet to cash in.

Edwards and Hamlin are trying to claw their way into the top 10 to secure a berth in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. Vickers is simply looking to gain his first Cup win before leaving Hendrick Motorsports for Team Red Bull after the season.

Each has plenty of motivation, and Edwards hopes to continue building on the momentum he gained at New Hampshire by winning the Busch Series race and finishing second in the Cup race.

Quick to share the credit when things go well, Edwards said he believes Pocono will showcase the strength of his Roush Racing team.

"The biggest thing about Pocono for me is that it's one of those tracks that showcases every part of your team," Edwards said. "It's like the engines, the bodies, fuel mileage, pit stops -- everything seems to be important at Pocono -- and I feel like I'm part of the best team in auto racing with Roush Racing, so I think the biggest benefit to me is the team I'm with.

"It's like [Joe Gibbs Racing's] Denny Hamlin. He went there and had great success. Not to take anything away from Denny's driving, but I think both of us have great teams."

Edwards and Hamlin will be among the eight drivers running both the Cup race at Pocono and Saturday's Busch Series race at Martinsville. After the beating and banging that usually accompanies a race at Martinsville, those drivers will face a different sort of challenge at Pocono.

While recovering from a broken shoulder blade, Tony Stewart said Pocono's sweeping layout isn't that taxing physically. Edwards said it's a different deal when you talk about the mental aspect.

"It's one of those tracks where the speeds are so high and momentum is so important, if you make one little slip in the tunnel turn -- coming off of Turn 2, if you make one little slip, you suffer that penalty for a long period down that next straightaway," Edwards said. "On a lap where you've only got three corners, if you mess up one of them, you've messed up a lot of the lap, so it does kind of become a repetitive perfectionist type of racetrack where everything has to go really well to make really fast laps."

The long straightaways -- although a welcome sight for a driver in Stewart's situation six weeks ago -- leave a driver such as Edwards with plenty of time to contemplate things.

"You come off of Turn 1 and you sit there and stare at the tunnel turn for 10 or 11 seconds, and sometimes that's not a good thing for a race car driver," Edwards said. "I can only speak for myself, but you sit there and look at that turn and it's like, 'Wow, should I brake a little later? How deep can I go into this corner?' It's easy to get sucked into making mistakes there because it's like these series of calms punctuated by these really difficult corners."

Hamlin made winning look easy the last time out. He was dominating the race until a blown tire mangled the left rear quarter panel on his Chevrolet. The crew fixed what it could, and Hamlin handled the rest, joining Edwards as the second straight driver to win the June race the first time he was seeing the track.

Winning the pole was the first sign Hamlin was going to be good, but being fast for one lap is a lot easier than doing it for 200 laps. Hamlin, though, did it in style.

"It's hard not to be excited about going back to a place where you ran really well last time out, but we are trying to be as realistic as possible about what to expect at Pocono," Hamlin said. "It's a different weekend, and a lot can change in this sport, even in a short time."

Vickers certainly hopes that's the case because he's still looking to find the piece of the puzzle he needs to get over the hump. He has run at the front of the pack at Pocono but hasn't been able to translate that into the win he covets.

"I wish we could figure out what makes the track so special for us because we'd apply that to every other track we go to," Vickers said. "Some drivers and teams seem to run well at certain places. Since the first time I went to Pocono to test during my rookie year, I've enjoyed the track."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com