Long Pond, Pa. Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson earned their front-row starting positions with speed and power. They might have to slow down to win today at Pocono Raceway.
Newman and Johnson are poster boys for the latest generation of NASCAR drivers, a gathering of cerebral twentysomethings who recognize that success in Winston Cup racing is no longer achieved by simply pushing the gas pedal to the floor.
"You don't always see the fastest car winning," said Newman, the pole-sitter for the Pennsylvania 500. "You've got to have the total package."
By that he means a top-notch car owner, crew chief and driver. Then it's all about aerodynamics, chassis, engine and strategy.
Newman leads the circuit in poles with five and is tied for the top spot with three victories. He's the fastest driver. But his most recent win came two weeks at Chicagoland Speedway, when he saved gas.
"At Chicago, we had the total package," Newman said. "At Loudon, Jimmie had the total package. It's all about that."
Johnson won Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway, using the same formula that carried Newman to victory a week earlier.
"I think everywhere we go, every weekend, that's going to be a factor," he said, referring to fuel mileage. "The only thing that changes that is the long cautions."
Saving gas is key at Pocono, a flat, 21/2-mile triangle where running out at the wrong spot on the track means the driver won't make it back to pit road.
The other major of piece of the puzzle is track position in an era where the cars are so even that passing is extremely difficult. Johnson's strategy is to go to the front and try not to use up the car before the next pit stop.
Johnson hopes that approach will pay off with his third victory this year.
"Fuel mileage, track position, all those things are going be that much more important here," he said. "The biggest gaps between the teams right now are fuel consumption and pit stops. On the track, everything else is closed up. There's only tenths to be gained out there, and there's still a lap or a second to be found in the pits. That's why there's so much emphasis on what is happening, aside from the typical racing on the race track."
Newman said keeping a clean car is important.
"It didn't matter as much five or 10 years ago if you dinged the fender in a little bit," he said. "The cars are really sensitive and you don't want to take that extra risk of running side by side or hitting the fender or cutting a tire. Things like that can end your day."
Even when a driver falls back, keeping the nose clean can help carry him forward even if bad track position has dramatically decreased his chance for victory.
"It's the same Dodge we had here in June," Newman said. "We didn't dent it in last race and we had a pretty fast car."
He started second in the Pocono 500 and finished fifth to race winner Tony Stewart. Johnson had the pole last month and wound up 12th.
Stewart starts 33rd after a terrible qualifying effort Friday. Series points leader Matt Kenseth goes from the ninth spot on the grid, two positions ahead of defending race champion Bill Elliott, the king of Pocono with five career victories.