Hot/Not: Pocono deserves good marks for safety upgrades

NEUTRAL: Did you notice Pocono's new safety additions along the two backstretches this weekend? You can consider those in direct result of Kasey Kahne's tree-scaling adventure and Elliott Sadler's engine-removing hit, both during races at Pocono last season. Both incidents — vicious in each their own way — left drivers and media alike voicing malcontent with Pocono's dated methods of keeping drivers from injury during a crash.

The additions included catchfencing along most (if not all) of the track's exterior walls — no, this isn't 1985 — and a new standalone SAFER barrier that's designed to keep cars from either 1) smashing into a hard concrete inside wall like Sadler or 2) pirouetting through the air.

I'm giving Pocono high remarks for making the timely and expensive additions, but as a Monday morning racing safety quarterback, they leave some questions. For instance, Mike Skinner walloped the inside wall off of Turn 1 at Pocono during Friday's qualifying thanks in large part to it being much closer to the racing surface. Past crashes like Skinner's may have been avoided due to ample room to slow or recover a car, and it's surprising Pocono both placed the wall so near the track and didn't take the opportunity to put large swaths of grass in front of it.

Skinner did, however, hit a SAFER barrier — a point that should weigh heavily in the conversation as a smart and It's-about-time thing for a track long behind in its safety elements.

HOT: Jeff Gordon's Chase chances, as you most certainly know, are pretty doggone good now that the No. 24 has two wins. You've got to think that this is precisely what NASCAR wanted with the new point system in 2011 — the opportunity for a big-name driver to win races to secure his way in to the championship battle.

NEUTRAL: So much for Carl Edwards strolling at a leisurely pace in to the Chase, huh? The No. 99's engine woes — eventually fixed by his enterprising crew — put The Carl in 37th Sunday and allowed Jimmie Johnson to shave his once-dominant lead to just six points.

I would've marked this as a "NOT" for Edwards, but thanks to the now-brewing regular season battle (however pointless it may be) we could be in for an interesting NASCAR summer.{ysp:more}

NOT: Rule changes in NASCAR often aren't huge surprises to teams, so it was certainly strange to see so many teams suffer through issues with their transmissions at Pocono.

The rule change — a new range of permissible gearing at Pocono — re-introduced shifting at Pocono between third and fourth gears. Both Stewart-Haas Racing teams broke third gear, most if not all of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing suffered issues and Marcos Ambrose' No. 9 all made the transmission trouble list. Most of the time, such widespread issues are supplier-based and not a result of poor preparation.

NOT: Jeff Burton finished 20th Sunday, continuing a head-shaking trend for the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing team. There's not much else to note about it, other than to say Burton is still sitting on 0 top-10s in 2011 and has compiled six finishes of 16th or worse in the last seven races.

Burton, 25th in points, made the Chase last season.

HOT: It was a rough way for Johnny Sauter to lose a caution-filled Camping World Truck Series event Friday night at Texas Motor Speedway, but NASCAR made the correct call in pulling out the black flag. The rule is simple: under the double-file restarts now in place, drivers may not switch lanes until they've reached the start/finish line. It was a rule explained in Friday night's pre-race drivers meeting.

Sauter, however, did just that — intentionally or not — and it gave a clear disadvantage to then-second place Ron Hornaday. NASCAR penalized Sauter and appropriately gave Hornaday the victory.

HOT: I'm going to wait for TNT's second race to confirm my suspicions, but early indications say that NASCAR's mid-season television provider made some drastic gains and improvements over Fox's often-tumultuous 2011 campaign. Sure, the RaceBuddy online component is a huge advantage for TNT. However, there were numerous production points that made Sunday's race more enjoyable to watch than most of Fox's coverage this year.

We'll review and get to that next week.

NOT: Ford's apparent engine domination of the Sprint Cup this season — as was the accusation of Tony Stewart a few races ago — didn't show one bit Sunday at Pocono, a behemoth track where a big engine would make a difference. The best-finishing Ford rolled under the checkered flag in eighth (Matt Kenseth) and just two finished inside the top 20.

Does that mean they that Stewart's alarm about the relatively new Ford FR9 engine isn't valid? Not exactly.

The new engine is still inside NASCAR specs in terms of performance, but the real advantage lies in how well the engine cooling system is working. As a result, Ford teams can race with more tape on the front grilles — adding more downforce and more efficient aerodynamics to the car. Both attributes play well on the 1.5-mile tracks NASCAR loves.

HOT: NASCAR not throwing a caution for Greg Biffle's spin was the correct call despite the race being a highly green affair. NASCAR's rationale was correct: Biffle spun out of harm's way and had plenty of room to get the No. 16 righted while in the relative protection of the pit entrance area.

That being said, NASCAR ought to be a bit more consistent on that call. Remember, such a spin was a caution when the No. 88 lost it at Kansas and continued. Situations like that leave too many questions, and I know (at the very least, I hope) NASCAR can make those consistent calls that drop any potential illusion of favoritism.

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