Around 10 a.m. at the Pocono Raceway on June 11th, the cool morning hours offered a vast, clear blue sky. Against the mountainous, wooded backdrop, pit crews were preparing their team’s stock cars for inspections before the Pocono 400 race.
The place was already booming with onlookers out for the full experience; many lined up at the inspection area, watching each car come in. “It’s fascinating watching the cars getting all the measurements. It’s our first time at the Tricky Triangle,” says Julie Zwahr who travelled all the way with her family from Texas.
The Pocono Raceway is well-known as a uniquely challenging track, making this race, and a favorite driver’s potential win, even more impressive. Drivers in the Axalta Pocono 400 have to think more strategically than other places. The track’s hashtag: #Whatturn4, alludes to its three uniquely strategically different turns: one that is banked, another that is fast and high and the third is flat. As a result, this track certainly lives up to its “Tricky Triangle” nickname as it forces drivers to shift gears much more than at other tracks and ensure that they properly time their braking.
As all the final preparations for the cars were made, the Pit Crew worked tirelessly perfecting each minute detail. Aaron, a Pit Crew member who recently started with Stewart-Haas Racing Team, has been working on crews for over 6 years. He explains what it’s like to work on the inside, “All the crews here have the same challenges, the same difficulties. Each track everyone faces the same obstacles and basically we are all here trying to make that part of it better…just trying to get the driver comfortable, and they’ll do the rest.” The Pit Crew pushed each car through the check-ups, while the inspectors reviewed measurements and weigh-ins, making sure the cars were just right.
Back at the inspection area, Julie’s son, Zach, who was celebrating his 16th birthday on race day was hoping for a glance of his driver, the favored to win, pole position driver, Kyle Busch. He explains, “This is a funny story, but when I was 5 back in 2007, I actually had Frosted Flakes at my aunt’s and he was on there. Later on, my friends used to give me a hard time because I never knew who to root for, but then two years later I got a chance to meet him and now I met him about 3 times.”
As the sun peeked its way over the tracks, some of the drivers were still relaxing in their trailers, while others were out and about meeting fans. At a faraway fence near the inspection area, fans began to crowd around #55 Premium Motorsports driver, Derrike Cope, who happily met with each person, signing autographs and posing for photos. When asked what he would say to fans, he says, “I would tell fans that we are really so appreciative. I love the fact that they love this like we do. They keep coming out to support us and we’ll be as gracious and as accommodating as we can possibly be.”
After the starstruck greetings and essential inspections, the timer was on as the final preparations for the race began. While the Pit Crew finished up getting the cars prepared and out to the line, drivers and crew chiefs were verified and met officially at the mandatory driver’s meeting. In a rush of Nascar gamefaces, the clock counted the last 15 minutes for the meeting to start. Introductions of the day’s special guests were made and then the video began explaining the rules.
In addition to the common rules explaining what flags meant and the 55mph rule for following the pace car, in 2017, a few new rules and format enhancements were added. Now, if a car has enough damage that it cannot be repaired on Pit Road within 5 minutes, the car is automatically out of the race. A second new rule states that bodywork cannot be replaced once the race begins. Additionally, Pit Crews are not allowed to have more than 7 members.
Once all of the cars were lined up for the start of the race, fans received driver introductions and then they had the chance to step up to the cars one last time, sending off each of the drivers and crew with their best wishes.
With the Grand Marshal’s command, the drivers revved up their cars, took a few pace laps and then lined up for the big start. After the qualifying race, and most of the Pocono 400, the crowd was certainly convinced that Kyle Busch was destined to win. And at the end of stage 1, Busch was sure to oblige. By the end of stage 2, Kyle Larson took over, but Busch wouldn’t let his lead last long and he continued to keep the lead for the majority of stage 3. By this time some others had been knocked out of the race. Jimmie Johnson lost his brakes and after a terrifying crash into the turn wall, he safely left the race a little shaken. Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray also ended their race with crashes and both Cole Whitt and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. left the race due to engine trouble. Ryan Blaney came upon some radio issues, forcing him to resort to hand signaling his crew for most of the race, but he still remained strong and in the game.
During stage three with 10 laps to go, Kyle Busch continued in the lead and blocked Ryan Blaney’s attempt at passing on the front straightaway. Suddenly, with a surprising turn of events that shocked the crowd into a roaring cheer, with 9 laps to the checkered flag, Blaney slipped past with pure skill, jedi-like strategy and a set of slick new tires.
Soon after, Kevin Harvick made his move toward the number two spot and Busch fell back to third. By the final lap, Blaney and Harvick were 0.13 seconds apart from one another and the crowd was close to hysteria with excitement. Blaney pushed through turn three and crossed the finish line in a blink over Harvick. As the cloudburst of smoke faded, Blaney made his big debut at Victory Lane in a celebratory shower of grape and berry flavored Monster drinks.
Ryan posted about his first NASCAR Cup Series victory on his official Twitter page. With passion and excitement he states, “We did it!! Such a great privilege to driver for the Wood Brothers. Good times with good friends is all I can ask for. Let’s go for win 100!” And with that, Dale Jr. offered a welcoming celebratory bash to the 23-year old, self-proclaimed aspiring jedi and third generation racer, many of whom are now calling Blaney, “The New Face of NASCAR” and the “pillar of NASCAR’s youth movement.”
Congratulations on the big win, Ryan from all of us here at VisitPoconos.
Keep updated of all the NASCAR Cup Series races with the official schedule at NASCAR.com and to watch the full race from June 11th, check out the official NASCAR youtube page.
Photos by Tom Reilly
Article by Erin L. Delaney, Digital Content and Product Copywriter.