It's down to a six-race season for drivers and teams that are in danger of not making the field for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship in NASCAR, with Pocono Raceway, tucked comfortably in the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, the first stop in the countdown.
One NASCAR driver who doesn't have to worry about qualifying for the Chase for the Cup this fall is Carl Edwards, who spends a lot of his time away from racing in his hometown of Columbia, Mo. Already secure in the fact that he holds the lead in the Sprint Cup Series driver's standings, as he has throughout much of the 2011 season, Edwards is able to rest a lot easier this weekend after agreeing to a new multiyear contract with Roush Fenway Racing, where he started his career in 2003, moving to the Cup Series in 2004.
Edwards, driver of the No. 99 Ford Fusion for Roush, was one of four high-profile NASCAR drivers who will become free agents at the end of the season. The list includes Juan Pablo Montoya, who has a long affiliation with team owner Chip Ganassi and is expected to remain under the Ganassi banner. Brian Vickers' current owner-sponsor, Red Bull Racing, has announced it is leaving the Sprint Cup Series after this season, leaving Vickers' future uncertain at this time.
Another Kansas City-area NASCAR driver, Clint Bowyer from Emporia, Kan., also is a free agent at the end of the year. Bowyer, who has four Sprint Cup wins in 201 starts in his NASCAR career, said at the Brickyard 400 last weekend in Indianapolis that he was close to resigning with Richard Childress Racing, but that he wouldn't do so until Edwards had signed a new deal. "Where he (Edwards) decides to go is a big part of that," Bowyer said.
Edwards, who will turn 32 next week, was considered to be NASCAR's top free agent just a week ago, turned down a lucrative offer to join Joe Gibbs Racing for a reported figure of $18 million, which included a $10 million signing bonus. Although financial details of Edwards' new contract at Roush Fenway were not disclosed, it is probably safe to assume the Jack Roush either met or exceeded what Gibbs was offering.
"In a perfect world, Carl and I would tell you we would have liked it to have been over a long time ago," Roush Fenway president Steve Newmark said in an interview with USA Today. "Carl was very upfront when we started this discussion in the spring that he wanted to do a deliberate and comprehensive assessment of his options.
"He looked at a lot of strong organizations and ultimately decided that Roush Fenway is his home and a place best suited to make runs at additional championships," he said.
Jamie Allison, director of Ford Racing, said that sweetening the pot and adding financial incentives to a driver's contract was an unprecedented action in Ford's negotiations with race drivers, which spans over a century. "Carl's outreach and affinity with NASCAR fans plays a very active role in promoting new products," Allison said, and in the end, maintaining that relationship was a vital element for both Carl and Ford, he said.
Sunday's Good Sam RV Insurance 500 is the second race at Pocono this season. Jeff Gordon won the 5-Hour Energy 500 at 2.5-mile tri-oval Pocono Raceway in June. Also known as the "Tricky Triangle. The superspeedway, celebrating its 40th year of operation this year, features a unique structural design. Each of the three turns in the triangular layout is modeled after a different racetrack. Unlike a more natural tri-oval layout, the turns at Pocono are more severe and are more like the hairpin-style turns that are found in road courses. Additionally none of the three turns are identical.
Joey Logano of Joe Gibbs Racing will be on the pole for Sunday's race at Pocono. In five previous starts at the track, Logano's average finish in the No. 20 Toyota has been around 20th. His best finish was 11th in this year's June race.
Kasey Kahne will be on the outside spot in the front row next to Logano. Martin Truex Jr. will start third and Edwards fourth. Gordon hit the wall in his qualifying run and will start 31st in the 43-car field.