LONG POND, PA. - Carl Edwards' approach to Sunday's 5-hour Energy 500 at Pocono Raceway should be music to the ears of fans desperate for wide-open racing.
Emboldened by his 40-point lead in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings, Edwards said that his team will be "able to gamble a bit more, and I can drive more aggressively to go for the win."
Edwards' confidence and comfort level on the 21/2-mile triangular speedway is understandable since he finished in the top 10 in half of his 12 starts here, including a pair of wins.
The driver of the No. 99 Ford is heading an impressive early-season run by Roush Fenway Racing, which also has Matt Kenseth (seventh), Greg Biffle (12th), and David Ragan (17th) in contention for berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Along with Edwards' promise to throw caution to the wind, Biffle's crew chief - former Hatboro resident Greg Erwin - pointed out another factor that could turn out to be a wild card in Sunday's race.
"NASCAR has relaxed the gear-ratio rule to allow shifting, which I think will make for a better show for the fans," Erwin said. "By being able to shift, the drivers will be able to accelerate better off of the slow corners."
Ryan Newman, who claimed his first stock-car victory in an ARCA race at Pocono 11 years ago and won a Cup race here from the pole in 2003, is excited about the prospect of having more control over his No. 39 Chevrolet.
Being able to shift "adds a different twist for the drivers and the crew chiefs to get the [transmission] ratios right, to get the car handling when you are shifting and when you're not," Newman said. "It changes the way we drive and the way we set up the race cars."
Four-time Pocono winner Jeff Gordon also is in favor of the rule change.
"By allowing us to shift again, I think it's going to make it more competitive and provide more opportunities to pass," Gordon said. "You have to have good horsepower, and getting the gearing right and getting those shifts smooth is vital."
Gordon's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, couldn't agree more - but with a caution that trying to get the most out of the engine and demanding more from the transmission could increase the potential for equipment failure.
"We may even see someone try to shift six times per lap, upshifting and downshifting along each straightaway," he said.
Many drivers may find that risk more rewarding than banking on fuel-mileage strategy, which cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a win two weeks ago but also helped him capture a runner-up finish at Kansas Speedway on Sunday.
The gas crunch had its share of winners and losers at Kansas, where Kurt Busch dominated before running short on fuel to finish ninth and open the door for teammate Brad Keselowski to steal the win. Denny Hamlin, who climbed to third as others headed to the pits for a splash and go, wouldn't mind coasting home on fumes if it meant his fifth career trip to Victory Lane at Pocono.
And no one can convince Biffle that his win over Tony Stewart here last August was anything less than thrilling - even after he shifted into conservation mode and had to ease up on the gas pedal over the final laps.
The events: Pocono 200 ARCA Series race, Saturday, 1:30 p.m.; 5-hour Energy 500 Sprint Cup Series race, Sunday, 1 p.m.
The track: Pocono Raceway is on Route 115 in Long Pond, Pa. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike (I-476) to Exit 95. Take I-80 east toward Hazleton/Mount Pocono to Exit 284, go south on Route 115 for three miles.
Friday's on-track events: ARCA Series practice, 10 a.m.; Sprint Cup Series practice, 12:30 p.m.; ARCA Series qualifying, 2:05 p.m.; Sprint Cup Series final practice, 3:30 p.m.
TV: Sprint Cup Series practice (Speed, 12:30 p.m.); Sprint Cup Series final practice (Speed, 3:30 p.m.).
Tickets: Call 800-722-3929 or check the track's website at www.poconoraceway.com.
- Pete Schnatz