For a Moment All Was Right with the Racing World
The 2018 season has started. Daytona has been run and won by Austin Dillon in the #3 on the twentieth anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s great win there. Many have been framing this as “The Race” and FOX has taken great advantage of the marketing opportunities presented by it for their portion of this 70th season of NASCAR.
As fans look back on races many will remember this one fondly. It may turn out to be some fans’ favorite. Probably will be for Austin Dillon. Aric Almirola would probably just as soon forget it. For me, a different race, a race from last season tops my list. I invite you to read on and maybe you’ll see why.
This race Sunday was different from most. There were no afternoon commitments on the family schedule so I had a chance to finally watch a race in its entirety. Today’s was from one of the least likely places... Pocono.
For some odd reason I’ve always liked the track. Maybe it’s the odd shape or that long, wide front straightaway. This year everyone is abuzz over the “Roval” - Charlotte’s new layout that combines part of the oval with an infield road course. “Rovals” are not new as “The Tricky Triangle” has been its own combination oval and road course since it came on the circuit in 1974. The main difference is the Mattiolis figured out how to do it and make it all left-hand turns.
They shift at Pocono just like a road course. They have braking markers at the end of the front straightaway just like a road course. When it used to be a 500-mile race it was as hard on man and machine as any road course endurance race today.
Pocono was the first place I remember hearing of rumble strips being used on the inside of the turns to keep competitors from cutting the corners and throwing dirt up on the track (and on the trailing competitors). It was there that flagman Harold Kinder used unique hand signals to alert drivers of dangers unique to this track. When drivers saw his hands to his head in antler fashion they knew to be careful for there were deer on the back of the track. Finally, for the longest time, Pocono didn’t have traditional guard rails but used boilerplate to keep the cars on the track. Always scary.
Maybe it’s the memories. Pocono is Tim Richmond. Those who saw him race there know exactly what I’m talking about. Those who didn’t, take my word for it, you have been robbed. It was Tim’s track and produced many good memories. Four of his 13 wins came there, including three in a row with the last of the three being his final win. Even when he didn’t win there, Pocono brought out Tim’s true character, like in the scary 1982 wreck between him and Dale Earnhardt. Dale lost his brakes going into Turn One, clipped Tim, taking them both out and nearly launching Dale out of the park. In the aftermath, we saw Tim helping a hobbling Earnhardt away from the wreck, across the track and into a waiting ambulance, making sure he was safe and secure. When we saw Tim next he was giving a cool, calm, collected interview to the fans at home. No blame. No anger. Just one of those racing deals. I often wonder, if that happened between some of the competitors today what kind of behavior would we see?
The three turn track is unique in so many ways but few think of it as a great one. But today that all changed.
I’d watch this race as I usually do, with a FOX broadcast-multi-tasking. I keep the sound barely audible so when the volume from the booth goes up it alerts me to take my attention from whatever non-racing task I am doing and watch the broadcast to see what all the excitement is about. Hardly ideal, but given the circumstances it’s my coping mechanism.
Today’s during-race non-racing activity was to take in Monte Dutton’s book, “Taking Stock - Life in NASCAR’s Fast Lane.” A fun and informative read with different chapters written by some of the best writers in NASCAR-Monte, David Poole, Thomas Pope, Mike Hembree, Larry Woody and more. Each wrote chapter after chapter on drivers, tracks, races and more.
It was a great way to go back and relive racing from earlier days-Gordon, Earnhardt, Davey and Bobby Allison, DW, Cale, Kyle and Adam, Fireball, Cotton and of course the Silver Fox. Tracks like North Wilkesboro, Greenville-Pickens, old Nashville and early Daytona all came alive again. As the race played out through lap after lap of Kyle Busch in the lead I would take in a chapter and then watch some race to see where Brad Keselowski was running. I kept repeating the process over and over throughout the day.
I read about Benny Parsons incredible 1973 Championship. Wrecking 13 laps into the final race it appeared all was lost, but crew members from other teams pitched in to get BP back on the track. It was amazing to read how John Holman walked up and suggested they cut a portion of the roll cage out of a car that didn’t make the race that was sitting nearby and welding it into BP’s to complete the one critical repair not covered in the crash cart. I imagined what it would be like to be a fan there that day and see other teams pitch in to try and put hope into a hopeless situation. I could hear the cheer that went up when BP came back onto the track, logging valuable laps in a skeleton of a car with little sheet metal remaining on the right side. I wondered what it was like to be a fan there and to actually see into the car as Benny passed, soldiering on to get the laps needed to secure his championship. All the while knowing as I read that with today’s six-minute crash rule, limits on how many crew members can work on the car and RFID chipped crew members, today’s fans will never see anything like it again.
From those pages leapt a time, a time that made NASCAR so unique; where everyone would do all they could to beat you on the track, but if you had trouble those same people would do all they could to get you back on the track, because that is where they wanted to beat you. It was a time when no matter how bad things looked, if the race was on the line you never, ever gave up. It was a bygone era, but it epitomized what made stock car racing great and for this fan another reason why I was proud to be a fan.
Sadly, we’ll never see anything like this again-you see to win that championship they went 65 minutes over the now six-minute limit to complete repairs and had more folks working on it than are currently allowed by NASCAR law. Today, Benny would have been parked.
The book went down when I heard the volume go up only to see Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray lose their brakes at the end of the front straightaway and each simultaneously slam heavy into the Turn One wall. The wreck was reminiscent of the hard wreck Jeff Gordon had there in 2006. Thank God, they hit SAFER barriers today and not the old boilerplate or I fear the outcome would have been much, much worse.
After racing resumed I went back to the book and found the answer to a long-time question... Why didn’t David Pearson ever run open wheel? Turns out Chrysler had him test-drive Don Branson’s Indy roadster at Atlanta and even though he hated the quick steering of the car, within three laps he was turning laps faster than the Indy veteran Branson. Chrysler’s dreams of running David Pearson at Indy were dashed when at the end of the test he pulled in and told them there was just too much air on his face. The Silver Fox had a way with words.
The pages turned as the laps wound down. It was time to put the book away and turn up the sound as the race restarted with 13 laps to go. The restart order-Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Eric Jones, Ryan Blaney. If was time to see if Kez had anything for Kyle.
(If you don’t recall how it ends the replay of the final 13 laps is linked above)
Mike Joy: It will be thirteen to go... Pace car had better get off the track because they are going to be coming... Green!
Me: That’s better than “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity, but no call will ever beat Buddy Baker’s deadpan, “Free hotdogs... Turn One.”
they enter Turn One Kez fades and a red and white car
roars to second.
Me: Heck, just when I turn it on Kez gets smoked!
Gordon: Kyle Busch certainly got the
start he wanted, three-wide, but so did Eric Jones bringing his teammate...
This could cause problems for Keselowski...
Watching the cars hurtle through Turn One...
Waltrip: Keselowski got a, huh, huh,
Me: Man that was a stout move passing Jones on the outside through Turn One. Who was that?
As they exited Turn One it was Kyle Busch, the red and white car and the rest of the pack.
MJ: There is a big funnel going into Turn
One. Truex boxed in behind the 2.
Me: Well, Kez has screwed this one up. I wonder when they are going to mention that red and white car.
MJ: NASCAR has the restart under review.
The cameras zoom in on the second place car, the red and white car. It’s Ryan Blaney in the 21, followed by Jones and Kez.
Me: Blaney! Oh man this is going to be good!
DW: I thought Keselowski really laid back on that
restart so he wouldn’t have any problems.
I thought it was a pretty good restart guys.
MJ: NASCAR agrees. The restart is clean.
the Tunnel Turn.
DW: Keselowski (now fourth) isn’t going anywhere. He was just passed by Kevin Harvick.
Me: Still talking about Keselowski and nothing on Blaney. Guess this wasn’t a part of the production meeting.
in Turn Three as Bubba Wallace and Michael McDowell rub. Time for the late race caution, but the race
Me: Well, NASCAR had their chance to throw their caution. Man, Kez sure needed that... but the 21 didn’t.
it went, Kyle Busch, the still unmentioned red and white car, Jones, Kez, Harvick
12 to go:
The focus this lap was continuing the lament of Keselowski and following up on Wallace and McDowell as they sorted out their issues. The booth tried to determine if the contact was going to cause tire issues which would lead to the notorious late race caution to bunch the field. On they go, as the leaders comes out of Turn Three the 21 closes on the 18.
The lap opens with Mike Joy finally mentioning Blaney.
Me: It took two laps of hard driving before the booth finally says something about the 21.
was more than a mention as DW is now gushing over the 21 car but keeping the 77
in his hip pocket... just in case. It
took him a while before he called the driver’s name.
Me: I wonder if DW even knew who was in the 21.
Before the lap is over, Jeff is on the 21 bandwagon as Blaney gets a huge run off of Turn Three and closes.
As they cross the line, Blaney makes a move to the inside to pass. Kyle Busch throws a block like none other, taking the 21 all the way to the bottom of the track.
I’m on the edge of my seat now and the words I thought reacting to that move by Busch I can’t write here. I was so proud that Ryan raced him clean and didn’t let that move mess up his entrance to Turn One.
Turn One, Blaney pulls to the inside of the 18.
Side by side they hurtle toward the Tunnel Turn with DW and Gordon all
but guaranteeing the pass.
Me: I wonder if that reminds DW of his race with Davey in 1992.
Kyle Busch again takes Blaney down the track, this time running him a half a car width below the yellow line. Harvick, now in third stays outside, closing, lurking.
My reaction was stronger with this block than the first block he threw on the front stretch. The fact Ryan kept his cool and raced him clean brought a smile. He’s racing the way I love to see-smooth, calm and clean. Driving his race, his way... like another who in an earlier day used to wheel the 21.
Somehow they both manage to get back on track and keep running in the right direction. As they entered Turn Three, the patience, passion, persistence (and fresher tires) allowed the 21 to complete the pass. Before they crossed the line, Mike Joy had called the pass but DW, in typical DW fashion had to trump Joy’s call on the lead change...
DW: (screaming) The 21 car... to the lead!
The booth is really gushing over the 21 and the possibility of another first time winner. On the track the 21 was pulling away from the 18 with Harvick, also with fresh tires (but questionable brakes and an even more questionable engine) challenging for second.
The action shifted to replays of the blocks Busch put on Blaney. The overhead shot of the front stretch block was impressive as Blaney’s run with Busch’s block resulted in a nice bump. The block on the Tunnel Turn was hardly contact free. Both could have been ugly with lesser wheelmen.
This lap was all about Blaney needing to run perfect laps as Harvick was closing the gap. Kyle Busch, who had led 100 laps and won a Stage continued to fall back. Before the lap was over Eric Jones, also on fresh tires moved past him into third.
Kyle keeps on dropping as Kez and brother Kurt blow by him. The booth tries to build excitement that Harvick is coming. Gordon points out how easy it is to overdrive these cars with the small spoilers. DW nixes that by pointing out that Harvick may not have the brakes to allow him to charge and force Blaney into a mistake. At the exit of Turn Three, Mike Joy exclaims Blaney is loose.
Me: Gosh from that I expected to see the driver’s side door from Harvick’s in-car camera. Looked smooth to me... Keep it up Ryan! When is the caution going to come out and mess this all up?
This lap was devoted to Ryan losing his radio early in the race and he couldn’t communicate with the crew, yet the Wood Brothers had the car perfectly dialed in for him. It was an amazing feat until you remember that the Wood Brothers-the longest running team in NASCAR have more experience racing without radios than most teams today had been in existence.
Their third generation driver was probably using hand signals to tell daddy Dave whether his trike was pushing or loose before he could speak in complete sentences. Today, together they fit together like a hand in a glove, all second nature as shown by the shot of a cool, calm crew chief Jeremy Bullins sitting atop the pit box watching the laps click down.
shattered the feel-good old-school moment with: “I wouldn’t want my radio to
work so they could cheer me on... Go kid, go!”
Me: Bull! Nice try DW. No chance of that. You’d park the car till they got the radio fixed rather than run when no one could hear you! Now where is that caution? Hope Ryan has a good restart left ‘cause you know it’s coming.
The most enlightening exchange in the whole race...
MJ: So when asked in pre-race if the 21 would win this year, what did you two say?
then both talking over the top of one another)
DW: I can’t remember.
Me: Horse hockey! DW, that’s a crock if I ever heard it!
JG: I know what I said and I’m going to, I’m going to take it back now!
DW: I agree with Jeff.
Me: Finally! And there you have it folks. The reason why the 21 couldn’t get a call until two laps into the restart and forced too was because the 21 wasn’t on the list in the pre-race production meeting. He couldn’t get a call because they weren’t prepared to make the call and only did it when he forced them to. I can’t believe Joy would even ask such a question... but I’m glad he did. Come on now, hit your marks Ryan. Keep that 4 behind you! Gosh, that caution has to be coming...
cue, Matt DiBenedetto slows.
Me: There it is!
I kept waiting for the caution as the 32 coasted slowly around the bottom of the track.
Me: What? No caution? What is this?
DiBenedetto makes it off the track and the green flag
continues to fly as Harvick starts to close the gap. DW observes If Ryan is going to win this race
he’s going to have to drive four qualifying laps... reluctantly I have to
Me: Whew! Ryan dodged a bullet. Go man!
Harvick starts to reel Blaney in and I move even closer to the edge of my seat.
Me: If the 4 gets to Blaney will he treat him like he did Logano? Come on Ryan!
the 21 sped flawlessly around the track, Kevin Harvick was showing why he has
the nickname “The Closer” as he had worked himself within striking distance.
DW: Did you see the hands of Blaney? Elbows up! Driving the wheels off!
Me: Man, DW must have super vision or a different angle ‘cause I’m not seeing it on my screen. But it sure sounds good.
Harvick is all over Blaney’s rear bumper. It’s hard to watch now.
MJ: Caution! Cole Whitt has brought out the caution!
I fall back onto the couch in frustration and disbelief, knowing this one is going to be taken from him.
JG: No caution!
MJ: Excuse me! Sorry! I had a voice in my ear. No caution! We stay green!
I snap back up.
Me: No way! No way! NASCAR…Swallowed… Their…Whistle! I guess Steve (O’Donnell) caught too much grief after Dover. He’s got a chance. Come on Ryan!
Blaney keeps driving his smooth line with Harvick in his tire tracks. As they come down for the flag both swing to the inside, Blaney taking away Harvick’s line.
flag. One to go!
The booth barely commenting as they race down to and through Turn One, letting the picture tells the story instead. Heading to the Tunnel Turn, DW makes a preemptive call for the win-
DW: Got to get across this tunnel. If he gets across this tunnel he’s got it made!
Me: Shut UP, Darrell! He can miss a shift! He could make a mistake! The brakes could fail! The engine could go! Harvick could move him! It’s NOT over.
Out of Turn Three and down the stretch, Kevin makes one final charge.
MJ: And Blaney beats Harvick back to the gas. Harvick looks low! And the winner of Pocono... Ryan Blaney and the Wood Brothers!
Me: He did it! He did it! The Wood Brothers win again!
JG: (laughing) “We told everybody Ryan Blaney was going to win a race!”
Me: Just hush, Jeff. You sound like DW now.
As the field slowed on the cool-down lap it had been like stepping back in time... back to my youth when my Dad and I spent Sunday’s listening on the radio to the 21 and the Silver Fox-David Pearson go to Victory Lane. Later, together we’d watch the races on TV as Neil Bonnett would drive the 21 to the Checkers.
I watched alone today as Ryan slowed to complete the cool-down lap as competitor after competitor came up to give him a congratulatory tap-something you’d never see in 1975 when the 21 first went to Victory Lane here. Back then creasing sheet metal meant more work to get ready for next week. You do that if you have to during the race but never after, but today, first Kez and then Stenhouse came up to offer congratulations.
As Ryan continued, he was joined by his buddy, Bubba Wallace in the Richard Petty 43. For a few moments, the 21 and 43, side by side on the track couldn’t help but take me back to an earlier time when it was the two racing giants-Pearson and Petty racing for the win. That combination faced off 143 times and together collected an amazing 70 wins, with Pearson ironically garnering 43 of them.
As the 43 fades from view, the 21 is joined by the 22, Ford teammate Joey Logano. It was the 22 that David Pearson beat for his first win at the 1961 World 600. That day Pearson was in the John Masoni #3 and Fireball Roberts was in the 22. As Ryan heads down the front stretch and swings to the inside to pit wall looking for his team, DW snaps the moment with “Where my team? Where my boys?”
After exchanging congratulations with his ecstatic team, Ryan puts the car back in gear and heads slowly toward the first turn, slows, and as he makes a right hand turn takes us back to another time-Alan Kulwicki’s first (of only two-sorry, Mike Joy) “Polish Victory Lap”. Alan first did it after his first win at Phoenix. Today, Ryan would do it after his first win at Pocono.
With window net down, and his window to the crowd he drives the wrong way to the start/finish line to pick up his Checkered Flag. NASCAR dampens the moment by first checking to make sure he had all the lug nuts tight before giving him the flag so he could continue his first Victory lap.
More impressive, Ryan proceeded on the pits without doing the now oh-so-common Victory burnout and smoke show. Another throwback to an earlier time when no driver would ever abuse his car after the race. Ryan showed so much class as he treated the car with honor and respect, showing a deep appreciation for the Wood Brothers and the guys at the shop. I could almost hear my Dad say, “Now that boy was raised right.”
Victory Lane was even a throwback as I could swear Ryan’s drivers suit looked like something I saw David Pearson wear in his day. FOX got something very right by allowing fellow competitor and Ford teammate Brad Keselowski to do the post-race interview. It was one heck of a moment and a great ending to a very special day.
As the celebration continued on screen I couldn’t help but look to my left as I did after every race Dad and I watched TV in the kitchen back home. I’d always steal a glance to see his reaction, to see what he thought about it.
Today he would have been pleased-very pleased, seeing the Wood Brothers get their 99th win, seeing Ryan Blaney, a “boy raised right” get his first win in the 21, seeing him become just the third Wood Brothers driver to ever win at Pocono and seeing him do it like those who came before him, smart, smooth and clean, just like David Pearson and Neil Bonnet.
As I turned back to watch the finish of the Victory Lane celebration I could swear I heard, “That was a good one. Lou, how about another glass of tea?”
And for that moment, Sunday, June 11, 2017, all was right with my world.