ATW: Takeaways from the Tricky Triangle

Rusty Jarrett/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

For a track renowned for its boring racing, Pocono Raceway brought out a litany of storylines in its first of two 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekends.

Aided by stages, a first-time winner, this year’s edition of the low downforce package and a spectacular crash, NASCAR’s first trip to Pennsylvania proved strong enough to crack the top five of this year’s races to date in Jeff Gluck’s popular “Was It A Good Race?” poll. That places NASCAR’s first foray in Pocono ahead of such races as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, as well as trips to tracks including Dover International Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Auto Club Speedway.

So, what made the race so noteworthy, and where does the field go from here?

Let’s take a look at a few of the takeaways leaving Pocono.

Tricky… Brakes

Before he was a seven-time Cup Series champion, Jimmie Johnson made his name by emerging unscathed from a tremendous crash when his brakes failed during a 2000 XFINITY (then Busch) Series race at Watkins Glen International.

83 wins later, Johnson suffered a similar fate at Pocono.

In a peculiar circuit around the 2.5-mile oval, both Johnson and Jamie McMurray reportedly lost all brake pressure at the same section of the race track seconds apart from each other.

Both drivers crashed viciously into the outside SAFER barrier before coming to a stop – Johnson against the outside wall, and McMurray stalling with his car ablaze feet from the inside wall.

After taking some time to catch his breath, count his lucky stars and undergo medical clearance in the infield care center, Johnson laid out his crash before ending on a humorous tone.

“I can only speculate that I got the brakes too hot and when I went to the brakes they just traveled straight to the floor,” Johnson said. “I didn’t even have a pedal to push on. At that point, I threw it in third gear and I was just trying to slow it down.  I was heading to the grass and I was wondering why I didn’t turn right and get to the wall sooner, but I’m fine.  Certainly, a big scare.  I haven’t had a scare like that since 2000 at Watkins Glen.  So, just want to let my wife and kids and my mom know that I’m okay and I will go change my underwear and get ready to go home.”

McMurray claimed to have suffered a similar fate, though his failure may have been linked to Johnson’s issues.

“I didn’t really even see the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) car wrecking until I just went down and I got on the brake pedal and my pedal started to go to the floor and I had a little bit that I could kind of pump it and I thought I was going to be okay,” McMurray said. “And then, I don’t know if I got into some oil or what happened, but I just started spinning and didn’t have any brakes.  So, it was really weird that we kind of both had the same thing happen at the same point on the racetrack, but fortunately, we are both okay and yeah, move on.”

Either one of the accidents could have stood among the year’s most harrowing, but together they provided a terrifying symphony of devastating hits and broken sheet metal that brought the race to a temporary halt.

Thankfully, both drivers were okay. Much like in Jeff Gordon’s similar incident in 2006, the SAFER barrier and other safety innovations of the past two decades combined to deliver both drivers to their families in one piece.

So, what caused the failures?

In the end, the low-downforce package might be to blame.

With less downforce than the series has seen in many years, drivers were forced to use more brake pedal than they have in recent years. As runner-up Kevin Harvick noted, the package may have played a role, though teams rarely go heavy on brakes at Pocono.

“Honestly, we don’t use a lot of brake,” Harvick said. “It’s funny because the teams all hear that and then they come with the smallest brakes that you can put on the car, pretty much everybody.  So it’s a balance between having big enough brakes because you don’t want to carry the weight and having the stopping power that you need to get in the corners.  You know, we’ll definitely do something different. Obviously with this aero package it’s a lot different with the way that the cars slow down and how much drag they have on the cars.  They don’t slow down like they used to and they have more speed going down the straightaways.”

Tricky… Strategy

Kyle Busch has to wonder just what he has to do to cross the final two tracks – Charlotte Motor Speedway and Pocono – off of his winless list in the Cup Series.

In May, Busch appeared en-route to a victory in the Coke 600 at Charlotte when Austin Dillon’s fuel strategy heroics stole the night.

Kyle Busch was dominant at Pocono Raceway until a late caution sent his day awry. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

Less than one month later, Busch had the best car on the property in Pocono, leading 100 laps and dominating the majority of the day. Yet when the checkered flag flew, he’d barely held on to a top 10, undone by a late caution and subsequent round of pit stops.

Busch was pacing the field with 19 laps remaining when a crashing Kasey Kahne brought out the day’s final caution. The Las Vegas, Nevada native stayed out to maintain the lead, only to find himself a sitting duck when nearly everyone else on the lead lap pitted.

The 2015 Cup Series champ maintained the point on the restart, and threw a few aggressive blocks to maintain the top spot late, but ultimately proved unable to hold off Ryan Blaney to take the victory.

Once he lost the top spot and clean air, the Nevadan plummeted through the field. Over the final 10 laps, Busch dropped from first to ninth.

There were no quotes to be found from the Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) driver after the race, save for a tweet of congratulations for the sport’s newest winner. Whether that be from his own refusal to speak, a lack of media interest at the track or an answer that lies somewhere between them remains to be seen.

Still, a keen observer of the Cup Series would be remiss not to touch on his strength and subsequent heartbreak.

Busch sits fourth in points, but he’s yet to win a race this season. In fact, none of JGR’s talented quartet  have pulled into victory lane this season.

That likely won’t last much longer. After a slow start, JGR as an organization has been showing improvement as of late, with Busch leading the charge. In fact, the Nevadan has led 20.29% of all laps ran in the last four races, indicating his constant presence at the front of the field.

Busch is without typical crew chief Adam Stevens for three more races after a penalty at Dover, and the late race strategy hasn’t fallen his way yet. But if he and the No. 18 team can continue to show the pace that have in recent weeks, a trip to victory lane is in store.

Tricky… Transmission

To say Pocono was a difficult week for NASCAR’s soon-to-be retired most popular driver would be an understatement as large as the track’s spacious front straightaway.

Just three years removed from a season sweep at the Long Pond, Pennsylvania oval, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. endured a torrid weekend in his penultimate showing at the track, suffering two missed shifts that ruined both his starting and finishing positions for the weekend.

He wasn’t the only one to make the mistake – Harvick did the same before luckily continuing on to a second-place result. But in the end, Earnhardt sputtered home in 38th, tying his worst finish of the season (Bristol). The weekend was brutal, disappointing and, much to the dismay of “JR Nation”, a perfect encapsulation of Earnhardt’s entire season to date.

There’s no way to get around it – Earnhardt’s had a miserable first half of his final year. The Kannapolis, North Carolina native has more finishes outside of the top 30 (four) than he does inside of the top 10 (two).

That isn’t to say Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet has failed to show pace. While Hendrick Motorsports hasn’t had the sort of banner year the company is known for (outside of Jimmie Johnson’s three wins), Earnhardt has shown promise in a few of his runs, holding ground inside of the top 10 before something goes awry to spoil the weekend.

There’ve been crashes – even from the lead in the season-opening Daytona 500. The team’s been beset by penalties, including a speeding penalty that mired Earnhardt in traffic and led to a crash at Martinsville Speedway in April. The 42-year-old’s been hit with flat tires, mechanical failures, ill-timed cautions and his own mistakes.

Other times, the No. 88 team has simply struggled.

Boiled down to its most basic description, Earnhardt’s seen the lion’s share of tough luck. The run’s been brutal to watch, and undoubtedly difficult for the North Carolinian to endure.

But on the bright side, all is not lost. There’s still time to right what’s become a quickly sinking ship.

A position in the playoffs on points is unlikely, but Earnhardt’s as likely as any of the recent run of winners and contenders to make his way to victory lane if circumstances allow it.

Fans already have next month’s trip to Daytona International Speedway circled on their calendars. Others such as Michigan International Speedway and Richmond International Raceway could also yield a triumph.

Of course, in the end, a playoff berth doesn’t truly matter.

Earnhardt’s legion of fans will likely follow him to the bitter end, win or not. All the recently married star realistically has to do is keep calm, maintain his character and show that the passion and effort are still there until he steps out of the cockpit and into retirement from Cup Series competition at Homestead-Miami Speedway to keep his fanbase as we walks from the track into NASCAR lore.

Still, much like Chicago Cubs fans up until the last couple of seasons, Earnhardt’s supporter’s can’t help but hope for a turnaround. They’d sure love to scream their hearts out one last time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *