2017 got another first time winner in Ryan Blaney this week at Pocono, turning a tame race into a memorable event.
Blaney used a great qualifying effort and new tires to steal the lead away from Kyle Busch and hold off a hard charging Kevin Harvick to seal the deal. Passing Kyle Busch wasn’t easy as Busch blocked Blaney all the way down the straightaway in a move that could easily have wrecked them both. But Blaney showed great patience and eventually got around Busch and grabbed the lead he wouldn’t relinquish. Once Blaney got around Busch, the 18 car dropped positions like a rock and finished 9th after leading much of the race.
Harvick was the next guy to pass Busch and he closed in on the young driver and stalked him around the track, waiting for a slip that would allow Harvick to get his first win of the year. But Blaney kept his cool, hit his marks and drove to the checkers. But more important than this win, he now has 3 playoff points. OK, I jest. I admit I still don’t get the whole playoff point thing and probably won’t until the playoffs start.
Aside from the Blaney win, the race was pretty boring as cars got quickly strung out. Not to say there wasn’t any passing because Martin Truex, Jr drove from the rear of the field to finish 6th and Chase Elliott and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr also drove to good finishes from deeper in the field. Granted, the stages helped bunch up the field and allowed good cars to catch up. But passing up front was a rarity and Kyle Busch was taking no prisoners as he set the pace through much of the race.
To spice things up a bit, Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray both had brake issues in the same turn with devastating results. Johnson lost his brakes, hit the infield grass and then shot up into the wall smacking his rear and then the front in a very hard hit. Johnson was visibly shaken for a bit but knows he dodged one there. McMurray also had no brakes entering the corner right behind the crashing Johnson, hit some fluid and smacked the wall. As his car trailed down to the infield, his car started burning in the front and rear. McMurray wasted no time getting out of the car even before it stopped moving. It took too long for the emergency crew to get there to assist him. In a fire like that, seconds count and while the crew arrived a full 20 seconds later, it seemed like an eternity.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr also exited the race early as he missed a shift, thus blowing his transmission. It was a similar move to the one during practice that blew an earlier transmission and caused him to start at the rear. Harvick also made the same mistake during the race but with vastly different results.
But several drivers had good days. Erik Jones finished 3rd, Kurt Busch 4th, Daniel Suarez 15th, Danica Patrick 16th even though she was looking at a possible top 10 before her tires wore out at the end, and Chris Buescher finished 19th. Bubba Wallace managed a 26th place finish in his Cup debut after starting 16th. He stayed out of trouble and brought the car home clean on a tricky track.
Time is running out for Earnhardt as the season winds down. He has to win in order to make the playoffs in his final year. With two trips to Michigan, a return to Pocono and Daytona still to come, he has a chance but will need to capitalize on tracks that he feels confident at. As good as he feels, he has not been as comfortable in the car with vibrations dogging him at several tracks. He also needs to get this shifting figured out with three more races where shifting will be key.
As races wind down, you know the teams at Joe Gibbs Racing are going to be going full tilt as is Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. That’s five perennial playoff caliber teams without a win yet this season. Add in drivers like Clint Bowyer, Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, and Jamie McMurray and it makes for an interesting run up to the playoffs no doubt. Even with less than exciting races week in and out, seeing some of the big names in the sport make the push to get into victory lane will be interesting.