Race Weekend Central

Only Yesterday: Ryan Blaney’s Star Rises at Pocono

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 second place: the 2017 Axalta Presents the Pocono 400. Editor’s note: this content is sponsored by Pocono Raceway in collaboration with Frontstretch.

It was the race that answered a question — and asked a whole new one.

Ryan Blaney had been close to winning before, sometimes so close he could all but taste the victory lane champagne. But always before, it never quite happened. Late trouble, or the product of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but something always robbed him of the win. And as the laps wound down, one mistake and it would happen again.

But even as Blaney was starting a career as a NASCAR Cup Series winner, did the same day mark the end of another era?

The Race

Pocono Raceway is a different animal. It’s a little bit oval, a little bit road course and a lot of headache for teams that don’t get their setups right from the very start. The three distinct corners — tight turn 1 at the end of the incredibly long frontstretch where speeds sometimes peaked at over 200 mph before the corner, the deceivingly difficult Tunnel turn 2 and the sweeping third turn back onto that crazy long frontstretch — all require something different from car and driver, and getting all of them right from both is a daunting task. 

It doesn’t end there. The 2-and-a-half-mile track allows for some different strategies as it’s possible to pit without losing a lap. Like a road course, this allows teams to plan the race backward, parsing out stops from the end back rather than from the beginning of the race. Crew chiefs can gabble a bit with stop timing, though in 2017 stage cautions had thrown another wrench in the works.

Strategy was varied from the start. Polesitter Kyle Busch led the first 17 laps before pitting and relinquishing the top spot to Erik Jones, whose No. 77 Furniture Row Racing team was the first to play the strategy game, staying on track to lead 16 laps. Jones eventually handed the lead back to Busch, who easily held on to win the first stage.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jones played the game well enough to lead a couple of laps apiece during and directly after the break, but Busch soon went right back to leading laps, controlling another 30 circuits before pit stops broke things up a bit.

The first of just two non-stage cautions marred the action during stage two, when Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray lost their brakes at almost the same moment entering turn 1. Johnson careened through the grass and into the outside wall, where he came to a stop with heavy damage to the No. 48. McMurray’s right front wheel burst into flames, and McMurray scrambled to get out even before the car came to a stop as the cockpit filled with smoke. As he made his hasty getaway, the rear of the car also ignited as safety crews rushed to extinguish the flames.

The camera were on McMurray’s rolling inferno, but when they cut back to Johnson, he was sitting against the outside wall, clearly shaken. Both Johnson and McMurray were able to walk to the ambulance and were evaluated and released from infield care, speaking with media before heading for the exit, finished for the day. A red flag for cleanup halted the rest of the field for just over 23 minutes.

Kyle Larson had taken over the lead a few laps before the double incident with just a handful of laps left in stage two. Busch took over to start the final stage and led two times for a total of 31 laps in the second half. Martin Truex Jr., en route to the 2017 Cup title, and Brad Keselowski each led a handful of laps before a caution for a single-car crash in turn 1 for Kasey Kahne’s brake failure, but Busch looked to have the race in hand. But the caution changed everything.

What it came down to was tires. As the laps wore away, so did Busch’s Goodyears. Busch led 100 laps on the day, more than half of the 160 total in the race. He’d inherited the lead back thanks to Keselowski’s unscheduled pit stop just before Kahne crashed with 19 to go. Busch stayed on track, and he was a lonely man. Busch had to watch in his rearview as the rest of the leaders poured onto pit road for tires. 

Truex and Blaney had been running second and third before the caution, and now they smelled blood in the water. Keselowski caught a huge break with the caution as well, restarting alongside Busch. Jones gambled with two tires to gain some track position. And suddenly, there was an opening, a chance for someone to knock Busch off the mountain. And here came Blaney.

Blaney started a solid fourth in the No. 21 for Wood Brothers Racing but didn’t score a single stage point. He and his team were patient, letting the race come to them. And coming to 10 laps to go, there it was for the taking.

Oh, and Blaney had run the entire race not being able to communicate with his team. Radio problems left Blaney able to hear his team but having to resort to hand signals to relay information about the car.

The restart came with 13 to go, and Blaney got a strong start as Keselowski faded quickly. He took second from Jones, but Busch began to open a lead, gapping Blaney by half a second.

It didn’t last long. Blaney caught Busch, who fought him tooth and nail, blocking Blaney across the entire width of the frontstretch before Blaney got the run that took him past Busch, whose older tires began to show.

As Busch faded, a new threat to Blaney emerged in Kevin Harvick. Harvick closed in on Blaney’s bumper with every corner. By the time there were two laps remaining, Harvick was less than a quarter-second behind, less than three car lengths.

All it would take was one slip, one tiny mistake from the youngster and the veteran known as the Closer would be on him.

And Blaney didn’t make one. For the 99th time, WBR drove to victory lane. For the first time, Blaney drove it there. 

It felt like it had been a long time coming. Blaney had teetered on the cusp of victory a few times, and now he’d finished it off by passing and holding off two of the sport’s toughest veterans in Busch and Harvick. Blaney’s star was rising at last.

Watch the full race here.

By the Numbers

Race winner: Ryan Blaney

Runner-up: Kevin Harvick 

Polesitter: Kyle Busch

Rookie of the Race: Erik Jones

Stage one winner: Kyle Busch

Stage two winner: Kyle Larson

Margin of victory: .139 seconds

Time of race: 2:48:40

Cautions: four for 18 laps

Lead changes: 13 among 9 drivers

Lead lap finishers: 24

Running at finish: 31/39

DNQ: none

Notable: Bubba Wallace made his Cup debut, starting 16th and finishing 26th substituting for the injured Aric Almirola in the No. 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports.

Why fans are still talking about it

As one star rose, did another begin to fall?

There are two events from this race that reverberate, a juxtaposition of opposites.

Blaney’s win was a popular one because he’d come so close, because just about everything but an anvil falling from the sky happened to him before that win came, and because he drove the No. 21 for the Wood Brothers, one of the few links to a bygone era in the sport.

Blaney was young, the sport’s future. Pseudo-teammate Keselowski (WBR had and still has a strong technical alliance with Team Penske, for whom Keselowski drove at the time) donned a headset and grabbed a microphone to interview Blaney in victory lane for the broadcast, the two sharing that moment in time.

Winning, for most drivers, doesn’t always come overnight. The Cup Series has a steep learning curve, and learning to race for wins at that level is no small lesson. Blaney took his lumps along the way, and fans acknowledged that in their cheers. His road to Cup wasn’t the usual progression from the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, through the NASCAR Xfinity Series and into Cup; Blaney had two seasons in Trucks, finishing second in points in 2014 before moving to Cup on a part-time basis in 2015 with a smattering of Xfinity starts sprinkled throughout. That made 2017 just his second full season in the top series.

Like many drivers, that first win came hard, but more came afterward. Blaney has gone on to win at least once every year since with the exception of 2022 and has finished in the top 10 in driver points every season starting with 2017.

A look at the playoff standings after the race shows Blaney in a solid fifth place, and he’d finish a respectable ninth. The playoff leader following Pocono was Johnson.

Johnson took a huge hit in that Pocono race. Losing his brakes on the fastest section of the track, where speeds of over 200 mph entering turn 1 were not unheard of, Johnson hoped to scrub speed turning left into the grass, but that sent him careening into the outside wall. It was brutal.

Johnson climbed from his car and took a cursory look at the extensive damage before sliding down the SAFER barrier to sit on the asphalt, not feeling well, though he appeared to let safety workers know he wasn’t seriously hurt. Johnson remained there for some time but did walk to the ambulance and told reporters that he was OK in interviews after he was released from the infield care center.

Johnson entered Pocono the defending series champion with three wins on the season, including one just the week before at Dover Motor Speedway, his 83rd Cup win. His season had been inconsistent, but he’d been running seventh before the crash, which was caused by a mechanical issue. It looked like Johnson was in position to make a run at a historic eighth title.

To date, he’s never won another race.

A lot of people point to that accident as the end of Johnson’s career. Was it? Maybe not. Hendrick Motorsports as a whole was at the beginning of a long slump; Kahne won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway later in 2017, but that was it for the organization. In the next couple of years, only Chase Elliott really found consistent success. The organization wasn’t quite up to par on track for a couple of years.

But the crash was vicious. Johnson was one of the most mentally tough drivers in NASCAR while he was winning his seven titles, and it’s unlikely that a single incident took that way, but could injury have affected his reaction time or instinct? It’s possible. 

It is true that as the wins were just beginning for Blaney, they would not come again for Johnson starting that weekend. 

When the sun rises, it’s setting somewhere else. Such is racing.

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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