LONG POND - They say good things come to those who wait. This weekend, the wait is officially over.
For the first time in 24 years, there will be open-wheel cars on track at Pocono Raceway, as the re-launch of IndyCar racing at "The Tricky Triangle" continues today with practice and qualifying in preparation for the Pocono 400 tomorrow at noon.
The race will carry added incentive as the second leg of the Fuzzy's Triple Crown, a three-race oval track challenge, which will award a $1 million payout to the driver who can win the Indianapolis 500, Pocono 400 and MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in October. Tony Kanaan is the only driver eligible to win the $1 million bonus after claiming the 97th Running of the Indianapolis 500 in May.
The return is much anticipated from many in the garage, with hopes of rekindling the thrilling action last seen at the track in 1989.
"It's great to be back here at Pocono, it's just a wonderful track," said three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dario Franchitti. "We've watched mostly old videos and seen all the old pictures of them going four-wide into turn one back then."
"But these cars are bloody quick around here. When I come out of turn three I can't believe that we can do this. The performance level of the cars is incredible."
Franchitti is the lone IndyCar driver with any prior race experience at Pocono, having competed at the track in 2008 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. But a 40th place finish in the event leaves the four-time series champion feeling just as much uncertainty as his fellow drivers heading into this weekend.
"It's a tough place to figure out, trying to get the balance right in the three different corners," said Franchitti. "When we get into traffic, it's going to get really interesting."
That unknown will be amplified from the drop of the green flag Sunday, as the drivers adapt to three-wide starts, something that's sure to throw an early twist into the on-track action.
"I think it depends very much on the driver," Franchitti said of the start format. "Three-wide is not really an issue because the straightaway is so wide. But turn one narrows up quickly, so that's going to be the tricky part.
"Getting down to two-wide and eventually getting single-file will be key. I think we'll certainly have to be single-file by the Tunnel Turn."
Nazareth native Marco Andretti, Franchitti's former teammate, admitted the uncertainty surrounding the start of the race would add some intrigue for drivers and fans alike.
"I think, honestly, that one's up to the fans," Andretti said. "I'm all about tradition, the way I'm built. So I love it.
"The straightaway's are long enough that we could hopefully get it sorted out by turn one. That's my only hope."
After turn one, the focus for Andretti, Franchitti and the remainder of the field will shift to the rest of the two and a half-mile oval, which is sure to offer plenty of high-speed drama as drivers work on finding stability around the notoriously complex circuit.
"The tricky part is getting the balance between turns one and three, really," said Andretti. "You can make the car good in one of the corners and hurt it in the other. So, really, that's been the difficulty.
"Nothing really jumps out and that's the cool part about this place. The one that finds that balance at both ends is going to be rewarded."
The teams will also be working with a slightly different setup this weekend from their last visit just over a week ago. Rather than use the same tires that were utilized during the Indianapolis 500, Firestone has decided to bring a different right-side tire for this weekend's event.
The change comes after last week's test revealed a blistering problem with Firestone's right-side tires. When the tires were initially tested in April the temperatures were much cooler, which was a drastic change from last week's test, which pushed the tires beyond their limits.
Teams will also be working with a newly defined aero-package at Pocono, in part to combat some of the tire issues that were exposed last week. There will be a limited number of mandates regarding the aero settings, which will give teams a wider range of options to add or subtract downforce.
In a word, tricky.