When drivers swerve around Turn 2 at Pocono Raceway in two weeks, they’ll notice something different.
A wider path into the tunnel.
The curb that once caused consternation among NASCAR drivers has been removed, while the pull-off area next to it has been paved.
And that could present some interesting scenarios for the upcoming Pocono 400 on June 8 at Pocono Raceway.
“It gives a little bit of an escape route when things start happening over there,” part-time driver and NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said. “It’s a pretty significant banking change there. I think it is a positive. I’m not going to be the first to use it. But the way re-starts are at Pocono, somebody will.”
He’s talking about drivers using the new edge to get an edge - by trying to pass other cars entering the tunnel turn.
“I think it could be pretty interesting in the race,” driver Clint Bowyer said during NASCAR track testing Tuesday at Pocono Raceway. “Somebody will be (passing) on the apron going into the tunnel. Might not come out, but somebody will be there.”
The change was part of Pocono Raceway’s continuing upgrades to make races smoother for drivers.
New safer barriers and catch fencing were also installed on the inside of the track, which will also feature all-new signage on the infield.
But the biggest difference that jumps out surrounds the entrance to the tunnel turn - there’s no more high curb to keep drivers from sliding off the roadway. In its place, an extending apron was installed that leads drivers to the emergency run-off road that snakes alongside the tunnel.
“They made it safer,” Pocono Raceway executive vice-president and COO Nick Igdalsky said. “Now they have a viable escape route that they don’t have to go through 30 feet of grass to find. It gives them an opportunity to run more comfortably and faster through Turn 2.”
That’s a relief to some drivers who had their chances kicked to the curb trying to enter the tunnel turn during Pocono races of the past.
“I hated that curb back there. Scared the crap out of me,” Bowyer said. “I hit it once, destroyed the front of my car. I never got close to it again.”
It was hard for drivers to miss the curb’s disappearance Tuesday.
“I was running and said, ‘What the hell’s different over here?’ ” Jamie McMurray said. “It took two laps to realize a curb wasn’t there.”
“I didn’t know there was a curb there, actually,” said Sprint Cup Series rookie Michael Annett, making his first appearance at Pocono. All you hear (about Pocono) is the tunnel turn and you hear the horrifying tales.”
They could become stories of guts and glory for drivers who want to gamble on a hair-pin pass just before entering the tunnel.
“It’s definitely going to affect running through the tunnel turn,” Pocono Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky said. “I don’t think you’re going to see guys dive-bomb through there.”
Then again …
“The tunnel turn, I’m still trying to figure out that corner a little bit,” rookie Kyle Larson said. “I feel like I can get through it without shifting.”
The different dynamics at Pocono Raceway fit in well with the dramatic changes to NASCAR racing this season.
Drivers qualify for races in a full field, instead of the single-file method they used in the past. And under a new championship qualifying format that de-emphasizes the old points system, NASCAR placed more importance on getting to Victory Lane during the season, practically guaranteeing winners of the first 26 races a spot in the Chase championship races.
“It’s so much different this year,” driver Martin Truex Jr. said. “This year, one win can change the whole season. As a driver and a team, you keep pushing, because you know one weekend can change everything. It’s definitely an interesting thing, definitely opened up a lot more options.”
And now, there’s even another choice around Turn 2 at Pocono.
“I don’t think it’s much different,” said veteran driver Ryan Newman. “It just gives you can opportunity to go down low if you’re going to hit something.”