IndyCar drivers tune up for return to Pocono

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LONG POND – IndyCar driver Ryan Hunter-Reay thought he was lost when he saw “NASCAR” signs lining the entrance road into Pocono Raceway.


Stay put Ryan – you’re on the right track.


More than a dozen drivers took test spins around the Pocono tri-oval Tuesday in preparation for IndyCar’s return to northeastern Pennsylvania on July 7 for a 400-mile race – the first open-wheel stop at Pocono in nearly a quarter-century.


“I saw `NASCAR’ on both of the tunnels coming in here. I thought there was a new tunnel we had to find” to get in, Hunter-Reay joked during a midday break from testing to help drivers figure out the track known as the “Tricky Triangle.”


It’s a return to open-wheel roots for Pocono, a place more known these days for its two stops on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. IndyCar raced at Pocono for 19 seasons before leaving in 1989. Danny Sullivan won that last race 24 years ago.


The reviews Tuesday were overwhelmingly positive from the Pocono neophytes.


Pocono’s three corners were designed in 1965 to model corners at Indianapolis, Milwaukee and now-defunct Trenton. Almost every driver who participated in the private test Tuesday said they welcomed the tri-oval challenge.


“This track is a hell of a lot of fun, that’s for sure,” said Graham Rahal, whose father, Bobby, won in 1988. “It keeps your attention. It’s so different than any other oval.”


Rahal equated last week’s stop at Iowa Speedway – the steep-banked, .875 mile oval – to a dash around a bull-fighting ring.


At 2 1-2 miles long with three distinct turns, Pocono might be the exact opposite. The 14-degree bank in Turn 1, coming out of the marathon 3,740-foot straightaway, seemed to pose the biggest question to most drivers.


Challenges similar to those encountered by NASCAR drivers.


“It’s always a compromise,” Hunter-Reay said when asked if he had a feel yet for how to set up the car. “If you make one corner perfect, the next one is going to be loose. That’s just the way this place is. You’ve got to look at what pays off the most.”


Guys like Rahal and Marco Andretti can lean on family ties for some advice. Andretti’s grandfather, open-wheel great Mario Andretti, competed in the last Pocono race in 1989 and won the 1986 race. It’s a virtual hometown track for the Andrettis, who hail from nearby Nazareth.


Marco Andretti, who also took part in a tire test at Pocono in April, said he didn’t make many changes from that spring foray around the track.


Andretti races for his father, Michael, owner of Andretti Autosport. Michael Andretti won the pole at the 1986 race won by Mario Andretti.


Hunter-Reay also races for Andretti Autosport. It was no surprise, then, to see Mario Andretti looking right at home on pit row at Hunter-Reay’s stall, with bright sunlight reflecting off his sunglasses while his salt-and-pepper hair fluttered in a breeze.


About five autograph-seekers hovered nearby, hoping to snap pictures. Taking a breather during the test, Marco Andretti watched from the other end of the stall.


No advice today, though, from Grandpa.


“He doesn’t talk to me unless I’m Top 5, so we haven’t talked this week since Iowa,” joked Marco Andretti, who finished ninth last weekend at Newton.


Still, it was a banner weekend for the Andretti team at Iowa with James Hinchcliffe and Hunter-Reay finishing 1-2. Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Hinchcliffe follow first-place driver Helio Castroneves on the points leaderboard.


Teams get a much-needed breather this weekend before returning July 7 for Pocono, with Castroneves’ lead very much in the sights of the Andretti drivers. Their team has won five of 10 races in 2013.


“That’s what this championship is all about. A lot of competition, teams right on top of each other,” Castroneves said. “Everyone not giving an inch.”


Thirteen of 14 drivers scheduled for Tuesday’s test took laps around Pocono. The other driver, Sebastien Bourdais, was at the track but didn’t get behind the wheel of his No. 7 Chevy in the morning run, an IndyCar spokesman said.


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