LONG POND, Pa. - Elliott Sadler barreled down the 3,740-foot Pocono Raceway front stretch during practice for tomorrow's Pocono 500, his speed climbing to nearly 200 mph, but slowing to a more manageable 190 as he dived into the first turn.
Sadler, who signed a three-year contract extension with Robert Yates Racing yesterday, had little to do as he whipped along. The only demands were to press the gas pedal and tap the brake.
Gear shifting, something he had had to learn as a rookie here seven years ago, is for all intents and purposes passe.
"It's a whole lot easier on the driver," Sadler said. "Learning to downshift as a rookie at 190 mph is a pretty tough situation, I know. Now I think we're going to have to run the [car] setups a lot looser ... and the guys are gonna have to play a chess match with each other come Sunday. What line do you want to be in? Do you want to go around the outside to keep your momentum up or do you want to go around the inside, which is the shortest way around?
"I think it's gonna be a lot different setup ... because you don't have all that initial motor [power] going right to the rear wheels [where the traction is]."
Pocono has always been different and difficult. It is 2.5 miles of wide asphalt with three sweeping turns - none of them alike.
And now, NASCAR has thrown in another challenge, a gear-ratio rule that eliminates overdrive transmissions, a key component in shifting. The idea is the restricted gear ratios will reduce rpm's, which should help teams reduce costs associated with research and development.
"It isn't a rule against shifting," said John Darby, NASCAR's Nextel Cup Series director. "But by limiting rpm's to 9,500, there is no need to shift."
A fact that made it possible for drivers Rusty Wallace and Ryan Newman to agree on something for a change. "You just don't do anything when you don't shift," said Wallace. "You just drive it."
"Yeah," Newman said. "It was kind of boring. There wasn't a whole lot of action."
Though the rule has been in effect since the start of the season, Pocono is where the change has the biggest impact.
"The question is, 'What are you gonna do for an engine for Pocono now that we're not shifting?' " said Doug Yates, chief engine builder for Roush-Yates Engines. "And my answer is that you better have the best engine you ever had because you need power everywhere here. It's obviously a long split between low and high rpm - probably like a short track coming off Turn 3 and the longest straightaway we run going into Turn 1. We've worked hard on trying to get the most power we can across the board."
It works this way. In the past, when drivers approached the first turn they'd downshift from overdrive. That move slowed the car, while gathering power that would be released moments later, when the driver upshifted and the car emerged from the turn.
Fans in the stands or watching on television can attest to the rocket ship effect a return to high gear would generate, as cars flew out of corners as if shot from cannons.
Driver Jeremy Mayfield remembers the day he won the June 2000 race here against the late Dale Earnhardt. He believes shifting made the difference.
"Dale never shifted going into Turn 3, only in Turn 1," Mayfield said. "Shifting twice that day helped me. He pushed up just a little bit in three, and if I had the same gear he was in, I would have slid up with him and that would have been it. But we were able to have that little bit of advantage to get a good run going into 3. Without shifting, I probably wouldn't have won that race that day."
With the change, drivers may feel they are driving the family car with an automatic transmission. After slowing for the turns, it will take them a few seconds to get back to speed, just like the driver of the family sedan that has slowed for a stop light only to see it suddenly turn green.
"Turn 3 will be the worst," Mayfield said. "The rpms are like 6,000-6,200, maybe 5,500 in the race. It's going to be hard to go from 5,500 to 9,500 [on the long front straight] and not hurt anything. It's going to be pretty bogging and pretty stacked up, I'd say. There's no telling what you might see."
The result will be slower speeds. A year ago, Kasey Kahne sat on the pole with a top speed of 172.533 mph. Today, speculation is for qualifying speeds to be as much as 5 mph slower.
What: NASCAR Nextel Cup Pocono 500
Site: Pocono International Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.
When: Tomorrow, 1 p.m.
TV: Chs. 45, 5
Qualifying: Today, 5 p.m., FX
2004 champion: Jimmie Johnson