LONG POND, PA - JUNE 07: Greg Biffle, driver of the #16 3M/Rite Aid/NextCare Ford and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Kobalt Tools Chevrolet drive during testing for the new track surface at Pocono Raceway on June 7, 2012 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for NASCAR)
It still measures 2.5 miles and has the same demanding triangular layout, but it's a decidedly different Pocono Raceway that hosts the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this weekend.
Thanks to the track's first full repaving project since 1995, plenty of variables are likely to emerge in Sunday's Pocono 400 presented by #NASCAR (1 p.m. ET, TNT). Another twist: The race will be the Eastern Pennsylvania track's first at a 400-mile distance after 37 years of 500-milers.
Sprint Cup teams began two days of testing Wednesday and the new asphalt quickly produced unofficial speeds that eclipsed the track record. While the extended schedule will allow drivers to get familiar with the new surface, the additional track time will place a premium on crew chiefs' ability to adapt to Pocono's changing characteristics.
"With an essentially new race track and new surface, there's a huge opportunity for someone to figure something out and dominate," said Carl Edwards, a two-time Pocono winner who ranks 12th in the standings at the halfway point of the regular season.
"We want to be that guy," Edwards said. "We don't want to go out there and have some preconceived notion or something. So we're going into it with real open minds and hoping that we can master that surface and take advantage of the unknown there."
One certainty is that the race will be 100 miles shorter than in years past. How that might affect strategy is another matter.
"To me, the shorter the race, the more intense it is," said Ryan Newman, whose only Pocono win came in 2003. "... I think there's going to be some rewards in us having some shorter races and having some longer races -- it all depends on the venue, in my opinion. A place like Pocono with the long straightaways, it's nice for it to be a little bit shorter. I think it's a good change."
One thing that hasn't changed in 11 races is the grasp on the series points lead by Greg Biffle, whose lone Pocono victory came in 2010. Biffle's consistency, plus a convincing win at Texas in April, have lifted him to a one-point edge over Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth.
The jockeying for a top-10 ranking to qualify for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup playoffs has also significantly tightened. Just 17 points separate eighth-place Tony Stewart from 12th-place Edwards along the cutoff line.