By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
Sunday’s Axalta presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway provided one of the more memorable races at the 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track in recent memory, with Ryan Blaney scoring his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win for the legendary Wood Brothers. To go along with Blaney’s win, here are five of the top storylines leaving the Tricky Triangle.
The Young Guns are Taking Over
2017 has been the year of the young gun. Though drivers like Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski, and Martin Truex, Jr. have won multiple races this season, it is the drivers that have joined the sport over the last handful of years that are stealing the show so far and Sunday’s win by Ryan Blaney was just another in a string of wins by the younger drivers.
By holding off Kevin Harvick down the stretch at Pocono, Blaney not only became the third first time winner this season, but also gave the Wood Brothers their first win since 2011. Blaney’s win joins those of Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. and Austin Dillon, who also scored their first wins and returned legendary organizations to victory lane.
“I think it’s a great day,” said Blaney. “We’ve had a bunch of new winners this year. Ricky got his first win this year. I think there was another ‑‑ who else? Austin won the 600. So, it’s a huge year for the rookies, and then Bubba making his first start this weekend. That’s a big deal. Luckily, we were able to get a picture before the race today with our cars. That was really neat. But it’s nice to be part of kind of this younger group of drivers, and I think we’re all kind of coming into our own. Erik Jones had a great day today. He run third. He had a super-fast car all day. So, I think it’s pretty neat to just be part of the group. You always want to be part of the group, and luckily we’re able to finally get in Victory Lane because I’ve been pretty jealous of Larson and Austin and Ricky for them getting to Victory Lane, them being young guys, as well, and now we can finally add our name to that group.”
With Blaney, Stenhouse, and Dillon all scoring their first wins this year, the question now becomes, who will be the next to add their name to that list? Will it be Chase Elliott, who has come close several times, or rookies like Erik Jones or Daniel Suarez, who have made some noise of their own this season?
One thing is for sure, we are seeing the changing of the guard unfold right in front of our eyes this year.
When Will Veterans Finally Win?
While the young guns are taking over in 2017, there are several of the veterans that have made trips to victory lane multiple times over the last few seasons that have yet to win this year.
Among those are former Cup champions Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, with both drivers having chances to win multiple times this season only to see the win slip away by the time the checkered flag falls. Along with Harvick and Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing as a whole has yet to win a race this year after dominating last year.
Through 14 races, we’ve had nine different winners (10 if you count Joey Logano’s win that doesn’t count toward anything besides bragging rights), so now that the countdown to Richmond and the end of the regular season is on, it’s a waiting game to see if these veterans that have yet to win will make it to victory lane or if some of them will be on the outside looking in when the playoff field is set in mid-September.
There have never been more than 16 winners in the regular season, but if the trend we’re on continues, that is becoming a bigger and bigger possibility. Definitely something to keep an eye on down the road.
Troubles Continue for Dale Jr.
The hits just keep on coming for Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
After shifting issues in practice that led to having to change the engine and transmission in his No. 88 Chevrolet prior to Sunday’s race and start in the rear of the field, things went awry in that department once again just a few laps into the second stage.
In an incident very similar to what happened in practice, Earnhardt went to shift from third to fourth gear down Pocono’s long front straightaway, but the transmission went into second gear instead, over-revving the engine and sending him to the garage as his day was done.
That is not the only issue that Earnhardt had during the race as he was also complaining of a soft brake pedal early on. As a result of the high speeds carried down the frontstretch, drivers were having to slow down more than 40 mph to make the corner, putting a lot of stress on the brakes.
“Just something in my motion, I mean there really isn’t anything different,” said Earnhardt. “The shifter is not different, the handle is not different, the location, everything is the same. I don’t know. It’s something about my motion that’s not… going in the wrong gear. I wish I could blame it on something else, because this is awful, it feels awful.”
“The car was fast. We drove up into the top 15 there running great lap times. Really, really happy with the car. Wasn’t really running that hard backing up the corners big time and just cruising forward, really happy. It’s just my fault. I don’t know what else to… I wish I could say that the shifter is different and something is out of line or not something I was doing last year as far as where we had the shifter mounted for Pocono. This really concerns me coming back here and the road courses you know. But, we haven’t had any problems all year long, but at places where we do a lot of shifting I don’t know what is going on, what I’ve got to do or why this is really happening out of nowhere. I don’t know… we don’t really have an answer to it other than me just having to pay more attention, but I mean I’ve been doing this all my life and this isn’t a common issue, but it has been this weekend.”
Things had begun to look up for Earnhardt prior to Pocono with two top-11 finishes in the two previous races, but with a 38th place finish on Sunday (sixth finish of 30th or worse this season), his hopes of making the playoffs are fading further and further away unless he is able to get a win in the 12 races remaining in the regular season.
Safety Still Has a Long Way to Go
Jimmie Johnson would suffer brake failure entering Turn 1 on lap 97 that led to a hard hit into the outside SAFER barrier. Another Chevrolet driver, Jamie McMurray, would also have his brakes fail entering that same turn, resulting in a heavy impact for him as well.
As he closed in on Turn 1, Johnson applied the brakes on his No. 48 car, but smoke and flames could be seen erupting from the right-rear wheel well, indicating the brake failure. Johnson’s car turned left down into the grass before taking a right turn toward the outside wall. The right-rear of his car would impact the wall first, whipping the right-front into the wall a split second later.
Johnson would emerge from his car unscathed, but did sit down next to the outside wall, taking a moment to catch his breath while the safety crews attended to him.
Meanwhile, McMurray’s car appeared to have the same issue and he would go into the Turn 1 wall a couple of hundred yards before the location of Johnson’s impact. While Johnson’s car came to a rest along the outside wall, the right front of McMurray’s car caught fire and he quickly brought it to a stop along the inside wall on the backstretch as the flames grew ever larger on his car.
McMurray was able to escape the flames and hop over the wall to get away from the blaze that was enveloping his Chevrolet, but it would be several more seconds before the first safety truck arrived to extinguish the flames.
While safety crews were at Johnson’s car relatively quickly, the same cannot be said for their response to the fire on McMurray’s car. Had McMurray been trapped in the car or if he had been injured and could not get out of the car on his own power, things could have taken a turn for the worse given the slow response by the safety crews.
Though NASCAR has made steps in recent years to improve safety response times, Sunday’s incident compared to the rapid response of the IndyCar Holmatro Safety Team that was seen the night before at Texas shows that NASCAR still has a long way to go in keeping drivers as safe as possible while out on the track.
Speeding Penalties Haunt Wallace in Cup Debut
Darrell Wallace, Jr. became the latest driver to drive the legendary No. 43 car for Richard Petty Motorsports as he made his Cup Series debut for the team on Sunday at Pocono, but Wallace’s first start in NASCAR’s premier series certainly had some hurdles throughout the day, namely due to pit road speeding penalties.
Wallace started the day in 16th, but by lap 19, he had been nailed for speeding already. As he came back down pit road on lap 22 to serve his pass-through penalty, he got caught speeding again, resulting in a stop and go penalty, which was assessed at lap 25, dropping him all the way back to 37th place, one lap down.
Just as Wallace began making some ground up as the race played out, a third speeding penalty was handed out to the No. 43 team, this time on lap 103, dropping him to the tail end of the longest line.
The team gave it their all to try and get the Lucky Dog and make it back on the lead lap, but they were unable to, finishing the day in 26th place.
It had been a trying day for Wallace on the track, but his problems didn’t stop once the race ended. While on pit road after the race, Wallace began to feel lightheaded and passed out, resulting in a trip to the infield care center, but he would be evaluated and released a short time later.
“It’s a heck of a way to start my weekend and heck of a way to end my weekend, passing out. Patting myself on the back for that,” said Wallace.
“I’m just so bummed out and frustrated with myself. I know my family is going to be hard on me after this not to be so hard on myself, but I’m competitive and I want to win races and I want to lead laps. Just wanted to have a good showing, and to speed four, five times, same segment, that was pretty tough to swallow, and then this race just going green the whole time and just ‑‑ it was just not our day. I didn’t have everything lined up, and thought I had the right mindset going into it. I told our spotter Joel to be a little conservative to start out with pit road, and we’ll creep up to it. I guess we were already there.”
Wallace noted that the digital dashboards that the Cup Series uses were a big reason for the multiple speeding penalties throughout the race, as the Xfinity Series still uses the regular analog tachometers, making his learning curve for the Cup Series even steeper.
“I’m so used to analog tachs and everything, and this digital stuff I’ve got to figure out. I’ll say I’m not a fan of it right now. It’s jumping around too much. You just don’t get a true feel of what you’re running down pit road. A lot of other guys say it’s fine, so I’ve just got to figure out what I’ve got to do better. But it’s just frustrating on my part.”
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