With maybe an exception or two, most everyone cheers for the winner of a NASCAR race. But Sunday at Pocono was different. It was last week when the iconic No. 3 reached victory lane with Austin Dillon winning his first Cup race. Now another iconic number and team reached victory lane with Ryan Blaney winning his first Cup race in the No. 21 on Sunday. And it was hard to find somebody not happy for Blaney and/or the Wood Brothers.
Sunday’s win for Blaney was easily the most popular victory of the season. It’s the combination of Blaney being a well-liked and unassuming personality and he’s also taken his time and learned the NASCAR ropes over the last two years. And if memory serves correct, he’s not put anyone into the wall, at least certainly not intentionally. The combination of Blaney being a young driver who is active on social media driving for the iconic Wood Brothers team that long-time fans can relate to make up a formula for a driver who can become very popular very fast. Also, the long list of drivers who sent congratulatory messages through social media included Kyle Busch. So, if he’s happy for Blaney, that just proves everybody loves this winner.
It’s been a difficult season for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and things didn’t get any better over the weekend. Junior had issues making a correct shift in practice which caused a blown engine and him starting at the back of the field. Anybody can make a mistake once, for sure. Then the same thing happened during the race, leaving him with a 38th place finish. That finish leaves Junior at 23rd in the points, 93 behind 16th place Ryan Newman and without a win right now. But looking closer at the standings, he’s really 140 points out of the playoffs. That’s because Austin Dillon, who has one win this year, sits 21st in the standings, pushing Matt Kenseth out (at the moment) and leaving the next driver without a win as Clint Bowyer. So yes, it’s a win or no playoffs scenario for Junior, plain and simple. He’s got 12 more chances at it, with his best shot of course, being Daytona.
Blaney’s win is just a reminder that there is a group of young drivers on the way up. With the pending retirement of Junior and the recent retirements of Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, there’s always a question of who is going to replace some of the sport’s most successful and popular drivers. But as is the case in any sport, there are always replacements and while it remains to be seen if they will be champions or join the sport’s icons, there certainly seems to be enough talent for at least one of two of them to make it big. Blaney, of course is one of those guys, and the other of course is Chase Elliott. While Elliott has yet to win a Cup race, with the appearances of the No. 3 and No. 21 in victory lane in recent weeks with first time winners, you have to wonder if the No. 24 isn’t too far behind.
When NASCAR asked drivers what they wanted (or in this case didn’t want) for the new rules for 2017, one of the answers was less downforce on the car to put the outcome more in the drivers’ hands. However, with what happened at Pocono on Sunday, in at least a couple of cases, it had to do with putting the outcome in the drivers’ feet. As Jeff Gordon pointed out on the TV broadcast, with less downforce on the car, that means a place like Pocono requires more braking. As Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray found out, it’s no fun going into a corner at near 200 mph only to find out the brakes aren’t working. It put the NASCAR safety standards to the test and they held up well. But it’s safe to assume that Johnson and McMurray don’t want to be used as crash test dummies like that again anytime soon – or ever for that matter. In Johnson’s case, you wonder without the SAFER barrier and the HANS device just how bad he would have been injured. Nonetheless, the brake issue will need to be addressed quickly before a driver, pit crew member or fans are seriously injured.
HOT and NOT
The issue of driver autographs was brought up on social media by Brad Keselowski this week. He asked if it was a driver’s job to sign autographs. It seems like a simple yes or no question, so here is a simple answer: yes and no. The autograph situation can be a tricky one for sure. There are some places where drivers are more accessible (say a pre-race Darlington or the short walk between the garage and the driver introduction area at Pocono). From a fan’s point of view, it’s important to be realistic. If a driver is signing on the way in or out from the garage area, if they take time to sign a dozen or so, then that’s about all they probably have time for. Also, if you’re an adult and don’t get an autograph you want, you should just get over it. It’s nice to get things signed when you can, but shouldn’t be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen. If you have a young child, say around age 10 or younger, the odds are better, because the driver can be reasonably assured they are not signing something that will be turned around and sold. I do think it’s important for drivers to take time to sign for at least some people if at all possible. It means a lot to the fans, most of which are not in the re-sale business. But remember, if they are doing it for free at a track during the season, not to get too upset if they simply don’t have the time either. So, yes, even a brief interaction of 30 seconds or so can make a fan for life and that’s beneficial to the driver and the sport. And no, they can’t sign for every single person they see. It’s just not physically possible.
The Cup series heads to Michigan for it’s Father’s Day race and this has been a place where the Fords have traditionally been strong. But another strong competitor there in his only two races there has been Chase Elliott, who has two second place finishes. So, yes, it’s time for another first-time winner in with an iconic winner to visit victory lane. The deep sleeper underdog who you might not think about pick is Paul Menard, who does have a top 10 finish in his last four races at Michigan and is generally strong on the fast tracks.