Who knew the serene Pocono Mountains, that region of leafy overlooks and scout camps and honeymoon hotels where the bridge-and-tunnel crowd comes to get away from it all, could be the site of such upheaval. Trim the distance, put down a new sheet of asphalt, and suddenly everything goes topsy-turvy at the triangular race track Doc Mattioli carved out of a spinach farm. Northeastern Pennsylvania hadn't experienced so much turmoil since Michael Scott left Dunder Mifflin to form his own paper company.
Where to begin? A first-time (well, kind of) race winner, a new Sprint Cup points leader, and a complete shake-up in the wild-card standings. Nearly two dozen pit-road speeding penalties, a few black flags, and a nudge-and-run at the end. The craziest race of the season unfolded at perhaps the least expected place, a 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway where fast speeds and long straightaways typically place a premium on horsepower. Sunday, though, so much of what we've known about the year to this point changed.
Say goodbye to Greg Biffle, your points leader since Las Vegas in March, supplanted by Roush Fenway teammate Matt Kenseth. Say hello to a wild-card race that gets more intriguing with each passing week, one where Kyle Busch and Ryan Newman occupy the current at-large spots, but have two other drivers with race victories coming up fast behind them. Meet a winner in Joey Logano who hit on the right combination and dominated the weekend from practice to qualifying to the event itself, even if he did have to nuzzle up to the back bumper of Mark Martin just a bit to earn his first victory in a race that wasn't shortened by rain.
And brace yourself for the potential for more of the same, given the unpredictable nature of the tracks that lie ahead, and the capacity for standings-scrambling chaos they bring. Road courses, new surfaces, restrictor plates -- it all promises to be one crazy summer in NASCAR's premier series, and it might be Labor Day weekend before everyone finally gets to take a breath.
"We've kind of gotten into the part of the season where you see the same kind of top five guys or top 10 guys week in and week out," said Denny Hamlin, defending champion of Sunday's event at Michigan international Speedway. "You definitely will see a shuffle these next few weeks as far as that's concerned, just because there's so many unknowns."
Given the upcoming schedule, there certainly seems to be opportunity for the taking. Look at what happened on one afternoon at Pocono, where Logano went from a driver racing for his job to the cusp of the Chase. Now the Sprint Cup field will face a very similar situation this week at Michigan, which has also been resurfaced, and looms as a 2-mile question mark that promises to level the playing field between those who have historically been strong there and those who haven't. During a tire test in April, speeds on the straightaway of the new track edged above 215 mph. Similar to Pocono, everyone has a test session before the race weekend to get a handle on it.
"This month is definitely a tough one on teams with these test days and having to be more prepared with less time in the shop, as well as outfitting these cars for the test days," said Paul Wolfe, crew chief for Michigan native Brad Keselowski. "... It's definitely going to be one of the tougher months for us, but at the same time, we don't get a lot of opportunities to test, so from that standpoint I think it's good to be able to have the data on our cars and collect some information. The tracks are a lot different with the repave, but I think some of the things we learn can always carry on to other types of tracks. So all in all, I think there's a lot of good to come out of it as well."
Of course, that doesn't offset all the unknowns going into it, even some we might not yet be aware of -- who could have foreseen, for instance, that reconfiguring the speeding loops along Pocono's pit road would wreak so much havoc last week? And even after the transporters leave Brooklyn, Mich., in their rearview mirrors, there are still plenty of land mines that lie ahead. A road course at Sonoma that over the past two years has produced events with enough banging and gouging to make a short-track promoter envious. A Kentucky oval the circuit has visited only once. A restrictor-plate event at Daytona, where not even jet dryers are immune from the mayhem.
There are islands of sanity, to be certain -- like flat, technical tracks in New Hampshire and Indianapolis, places that haven't changed much in recent years, and where favorites typically have the advantage (although don't tell that to defending Brickyard winner Paul Menard). But then it's back to a certain resurfaced triangle in the Poconos, where a month of testing may not be enough to figure it out. It's on to another road course, high-speed Watkins Glen International, which can wreck cars with the best of them. Another trip to the new Michigan track. And cap it all off with a Saturday night under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway, for the first race since the variable banking was ground out to make the track more like the bump-and-run venue it used to be.
"That outside line -- the upper groove -- is out of play now," said Clint Bowyer, one of three drivers who tested tires at Bristol this week. "There's going to be a lot closer racing than we've had here in the past. I don't typically run up there, but a lot of guys do, and I can't see them going up there now. If they do ... it's pretty slippery, and they'll figure that out in a hurry. The closer we have to race just means something's going to happen. Is it going to make fans happy? Well, narrowing up the track means less room to get around so there's no question there's going to be closer action."
Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart also tested at Bristol, and Stewart was the only one who tried to run the high line. "I know he won't be trying that again," Burton said. "If people liked the older track more than the new, they are going to like this. This takes the top groove out and brings it back toward the old track. Taking the groove out moves the track closer to what it used to be."
It all makes you wonder -- will anyone be left standing by the time the circuit gets to Atlanta for Labor Day weekend? Surely there will, but if Pocono is any indication, it might not be who you think. Menard and Logano battling for the final Chase spot? Kasey Kahne and Keselowski battling to be the overall No. 1 seed? Carl Edwards or Kyle Busch going home empty-handed? Who knows. But now, anything seems possible, with so many hurdles ahead in what shapes up as a crazy NASCAR summer.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.