As Pocono Raceway celebrates its 50th racing season, we asked race fans about the most memorable races at the Tricky Triangle over the years. In third place: the 2002 Pennsylvania 500. Editor’s note: this content is sponsored by Pocono Raceway in collaboration with Frontstretch.
Not again. Please … not again.
The 2002 Pennsylvania 500 was less than a lap old when it happened: a sudden left turn, a terrifying crash, a car spinning through the air and coming to rest on its side, suddenly quiet. A shaken teammate running to the driver’s aid. And stunned silence from the crowd.
The 2000 and 2001 seasons had been brutal for NASCAR, with four driver deaths in less than 12 months, along with two others in ARCA and a head injury for Steve Park that nearly ended his career.
The sport couldn’t take another tragedy, not so soon.
You could have heard a pin drop.
It had rained in the morning hours leading up to the race on July 28, 2002, and track dryers were still working on a few areas even as the Cup Series cars began their pace laps. Mark Martin told the TNT broadcast booth during the warmup that he wasn’t worried about the track, and he was right — the track surface was race ready.
The second 500-mile race at Pocono fell just past the halfway point of the season; Sterling Marlin entered the weekend as the points leader, though an injury would ultimately take him out of contention as he missed seven races. But he was on a hot streak that summer on the strength of a pair of wins earlier in the year for car owner Chip Ganassi. Marlin’s hot streak continued at Pocono; he led 106 laps and ultimately finished third, padding his point lead over Martin by an additional 50 points as Martin finished 13th.
The lap one incident brought out a red flag which lasted just over an hour to repair an ARMCO barrier. Then-NASCAR President Mike Helton joined the broadcast booth to share some promising news on a new safety innovation NASCAR was working on: the SAFER barrier.
The race got back underway, but just 24 laps in, the red flag flew again, this time for rain. Ricky Rudd battled with polesitter Bill Elliott early, and Morgan Shepherd led a lap under yellow before the rain brought the field to a halt.
The red flags and later, impending darkness, lent a variety of pit strategies to the day. A total of 11 drivers swapped the lead 17 times, Marlin leading four times to take the bonus points for most led.
The caution flew three more times: Once for Mike Skinner stalled on the tracks and twice for the single-car incidents of Jeremy Mayfield and Jerry Nadeau. Much of the talk from the broadcast booth was about aerodynamic push and the need for clean air for drivers to be able to make moves.
Elliott took over the lead from Marlin with 63 laps to go, but by then, another problem arose — night would fall before the scheduled checkered flag, and Pocono did not have lights. When the race reached 175 laps, 25 shy of the scheduled distance, NASCAR threw in the towel, and Elliott scored his 42nd career victory.
By the Numbers
Race winner: Bill Elliott
Runner-up: Kurt Busch
Polesitter: Bill Elliott
Rookie of the Race: Ryan Newman
Margin of victory: 1.721 seconds
Time of race: 3:28:39
Cautions: five for 29 laps
Lead changes: 17 among 11 drivers
Lead lap finishers: 26
Running at finish: 32/43
DNQ: Carl Long
Notable: There were three sets of brothers in the race (Terry and Bobby Labonte, Geoffrey and Brett Bodine and Rusty and Mike Wallace) and 10 future members of the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Why Fans Are Still Talking About it
The 2002 Pennsylvania 500 was the second of a pair of 500-mile marathons at the Tricky Triangle, but it’s ingrained in the memories of race fans because of what happened on lap 1.
Park, in the Dale Earnhardt, Inc. No. 1, was racing for position with Rusty Wallace, who was driving Roger Penske’s No. 2. The pair was racing on the backstretch when Park made a move to Rusty Wallace’s outside. That part of the track is difficult for spotters to see, but whether Rusty Wallace was told incorrectly that he was clear or was told nothing at all makes no difference, because he drifted up into Park, turning the No.1 sideways. Sliding across the track, Park collected teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose car pushed Park’s into the infield, where grass wet from the rain took away any hope of either driver regaining control.
As Park’s car slammed into the ARMCO barrier, Earnhardt’s got underneath it, sending Park airborne. The yellow No. 1 flipped once … twice … nearly three times, returning to Earth nose-first and spinning on the nose, looking for a moment like a dancer, before coming to rest on its side, driver’s side down.
The crowd went silent; they knew all too well what the outcome might have been, because it was what the outcome had been too many times in very recent memory. Out of his car by the time the No. 1 came to rest, Earnhardt sprinted toward his teammate.
The broadcast took the cameras off of Earnhardt as he approached the car. His reaction could have conveyed something that they and NASCAR weren’t ready for fans to witness; Ken Shrader’s reaction to Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash a year earlier spoke volumes to those who understood. Instead, fans at home saw the cars circling under caution.
When the cameras cut back to Park’s car, movement could be seen inside as safety crews arrived and pulled Earnhardt Jr. aside, though Earnhardt didn’t move more than a few steps back to let them work.
Still, silence, save for the cars circling the track. Despite their angry grumble, they too seemed to be holding their breath. If the No. 1 car caught on fire before crews could get Park out … the rest was unspeakable.
And then Park climbed out and the whole world exhaled in a single breath.
Pale and clearly shaken, Earnhardt embraced his teammate as the two walked arm in arm to the waiting ambulance. The relief was palpable at the track, but for none so much as Earnhardt, who knew all too well the cost of the sport.
OK. This time, they were OK.
Park had missed 16 races in late 2001 and early 2002 due to injuries he’d suffered in a freak accident at Darlington in the fall of 2001. The effects of that accident were still evident in his speech, but Park spoke with reporters after his wild ride.
Park’s final result might go down as the most memorable last-place finish in NASCAR history. Fans remember the wild ride Park and Earnhardt took. They remember Earnhardt, clearly terrified, running toward his friend and teammate. And they remember Park climbing out of the car under his own power, alive and well. And they remember the relief. No, not again. Not this time.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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