Pocono Raceway was the site of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race with the Axalta presents the Pocono 400. Nicknamed the Tricky Triangle, the race featured misfortune for many teams – including Ryan Blaney – and domination by Kyle Busch. However, it was Blaney who would overcome his early struggles and the inability to communicate with his team to drive to victory after holding off a late push by Kevin Harvick.
After winning the pole, Busch wasted little time in reveling in 1st as Martin Truex Jr. followed. On lap six, Joey Logano suffered a flat left rear tire, forcing him to pit road. On lap 13, Blaney started the cycle of green flag pit stops, taking two tires; Team Penske ally Brad Keselowski followed and also took two. Busch surrendered the lead to Kyle Larson on lap 17 when he pitted as well. Shortly after, Blaney was forced to return to the pits for a loose wheel. On lap 18, Larson pitted, which allowed Erik Jones to take the lead.
Darrell Wallace Jr. – making his Cup Series debut in Sunday’s race driving the #43 for Richard Petty Motorsports – struggled with tachometer readings on his dashboard for much of the weekend. This led to a rocky debut on Sunday when he was caught speeding on pit road and was ordered to serve a pass-through penalty; while doing so, he was penalized again for the same infraction and had to serve a stop-and-go. To add to his woes, as he drove down pit road, he attempted to look for the #6 pit sign (as he had driven the now-shuttered #6 car in the Xfinity Series) instead of #43.
Jones pitted on lap 35 and Busch returned to the lead, going on to win the stage. Behind him were Harvick, Keselowski, Larson, Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Austin Dillon.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. stayed out during pit stops and became the leader; alongside him was Jones after he took two tires. Stage #2 commenced on lap 57 as Jones pulled ahead of Stenhouse, who began to fall. A lap later, Clint Bowyer collided with the wall and caused smoke to emit from his car, though no caution was called. On lap 59, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race ended when his car lost power; during the first stage, he fought with a soft brake pedal, with transmission problems dooming the #88 a stage later. Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 61. Three laps later, Dillon pitted to begin green flag stops, though Busch stayed out; he would not pit until lap 90 and Larson inherited the lead as a result. On lap 79, Blaney’s radio failed, forcing him to communicate with his team through hand signals.
With five laps remaining in the second stage, Johnson’s brake failed, causing his car to leak brake fluid and go off course before turning sideways and slamming into the turn one wall. Behind him, McMurray drove over the fluid, which led to the #1 also spinning and hitting the wall. McMurray’s car caught fire, though he was able to escape from the car safely.
“I’m fine, certainly a big scare, I haven’t had a scare like that since 2000 in Watkins Glen,” Johnson stated before joking, “Let my wife and kids (and) my mom know I’m okay and we’ll probably change my underwear and get ready to go home.”
The wreck led to a red flag that lasted 23 minutes. When NASCAR changed the race status back to caution, it set up a one-lap dash to the Stage #2 finish. As Larson attempted to clean his tires by swerving left and right, he collided with Bowyer, squeezing the #14 between the #42 and thee wall. To add to the chaos, NASCAR announced pit road was closed, but eight cars, including Stenhouse, Trevor Bayne, Michael McDowell, Jeffrey Earnhardt, Ty Dillon and Bowyer pitted; this placed them on newer tires, but had to restart at the rear of the field.
Larson and Harvick led the field to the restart. The latter missed a gear coming to the green, allowing Kyle Busch to pass him for 2nd as Larson pulled away to win the stage. Rounding out the top-10 were Busch, Truex, Harvick, Elliott, Jones, Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Kasey Kahne and Kenseth.
Kyle Busch elected to stay out as the leaders pitted, which granted him 1st place for the start of Stage #3 on lap 105. He continued to lead until green flag stops started on lap 123, giving the position to Truex, who led six laps before also pitting. Keselowski, Ty Dillon and Stenhouse did not pit at the time, allowing them to become the top-3. On lap 142, a third Hendrick Motorsports car was forced to retire from the race with brake problems when Kahne’s brakes failed and he hit the turn one wall, bringing out the second racing incident-based caution.
Jones took two tires and won the race off pit road, but started next to Blaney behind Kyle Busch and Keselowski, who did not pit. The green flag waved with 13 laps to go and a good start by Busch allowed him to seal the lead, while Keselowski dropped to 4th. With ten laps to go, Blaney caught up to the #18, who began to perform aggressive blocking maneuvers, going as far as to dive as close to the apron as possible. A lap later, Blaney ducked to Busch’s inside on turn three and made the pass for the lead. Problems began to plague Busch’s car as he fell through the field.
With Blaney in contention to score his first career Cup Series victory, Harvick – who has not won a race in 2017 – was determined to claim the win for himself. The 2014 champion closed in on Blaney, providing pressure on the sophomore. In the back of the field, technical issues for Matt DiBenedetto and Wallace occurred, though no caution was waved. Despite the narrow distance between him and Harvick, Blaney was able to prevent him from making the pass en route to winning his first race in the Cup Series. Harvick was forced to settle for 2nd, followed by Jones, Kurt Busch, Truex, Larson, Elliott, Kyle Busch and Kenseth.
The victory was the 99th for Wood Brothers Racing and the first for the team since Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500. Blaney, the third first-time winner of 2017, was the seventh driver to win his first career Cup race with the team. He is also the 29th driver to win a race in each of NASCAR’s three national series (Cup, Xfinity, Camping World Truck). On Saturday, Keselowski won the Xfinity race and Blaney, as part of Fox’s Cup drivers-only broadcast, interviewed his Penske teammate. For Sunday, a role reversal took place with Keselowski interviewing Blaney.
“It’s hard to process,” Blaney told Keselowski. “Well, first we had to pass Kyle and that was tough. He was on older tires and he was struggling off of (turn) one and we were able to get under him there. Then we had to hold Kevin off, he was really fast all day, and I just didn’t want to make a mistake.”
Jones and Blaney’s close friend Wallace also congratulated him in Victory Lane. Wallace finished 26th and a lap down.
Next week, the Cup Series travels to Brooklyn’s Michigan International Speedway for the FireKeepers Casino 400.
Race results (courtesy of Racing-Reference)
Featured image courtesy of @RIRInsider