By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (December 27, 2021)
After a sterling decade of racing in the 1980s at the Tricky Triangle, Pocono Raceway had plenty to live up to in the 1990s.
Disagreements between CART and Pocono led to open-wheel racing’s departure from Long Pond after 1989. That vaulted stock-car racing between NASCAR and ARCA to vault into prominence around the 2.5-mile triangular track in no time.
The decade featured fantastic finishes, intense battles, wild crashes and flashes of dominance along the way.
Dominance came in the form of numerous victories for rivals Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, both of whom won three races apiece throughout the 1990s. Wallace scored Pocono wins in 1991, 1994 and 1996, but despite his triumphs only notched an average finish of 18.2 over the 20 races at Pocono during that time. In six less races, Gordon’s Pocono average through the ‘90s was 10.4, a statistic bolstered by an incredible run of seven top-two finishes in eight races from 1995 through 1999.
In a 2021 interview reminiscing on his Pocono days, Gordon noted the track had all the characteristics he looked for: something different.
“To me, I always loved the challenge of any track that had distinct corners, whether it be a road course or whether it be Pocono or Darlington or Phoenix,” Gordon said. “Those are the fun challenges as a racecar driver that you face that you want to attack and that’s the way I felt about Pocono.”
His crew chief, Ray Evernham, was a New Jersey native who spent much of his upbringing coming to Pocono Raceway, whether for modifieds, IndyCar or NASCAR. He attributes his familiarity to the area for the success he found with Gordon.
“I think wherever you go, if you’ve got a pretty good handle on the weather, that helps you a lot,” Evernham said. “And I remember having a good idea about what we’re going to be facing with practice. And then at Pocono, 500 [miles] was a long, long race and a track that big doesn’t act the same way [at all times] because it really never has the same amount of sun and clouds on it as consistently as another track.
“I always had some desire to want to do really well there because of all my friends. And again, it sounds crazy, but being able to understand the weather and the things up there helped me a little bit too.”
Darrell Waltrip, the three-time NASCAR Cup champion, earned two of his four Pocono victories in the early 1990s. The first came in 1991 and the second in 1992’s Miller Genuine Draft 500 – and that’s where we find perhaps the most serious Cup crash at Pocono during the decade.
Shortly after a restart with just over 50 laps remaining, Waltrip found himself battling Davey Allison for fourth place heading through the Tunnel Turn. Waltrip snuck low and Allison tried to block. Contact ensued and sent Allison airborne. His No. 28 Havoline Ford barrel-rolled through the grass side over side, end over end nine times before landing upside down at the infield grass and over a guardrail near Turn 3.
“We just bumped,” Waltrip recalled. “It wasn’t even a hard lick; it wasn’t like I ran over him. We just bumped. He cut in front of me and I happened to clip him. And when I came back around, I saw Davey’s car was destroyed. And that car had gone off the track, hit that dirt bank into that guardrail and went flipping down through there and I was devastated because I had no idea that that bad an accident could happen on that short chute.
“But anyway, I went on and I won that race. And I’m glad I did because it gave me a chance to apologize to Davey for what happened.”
Dominance wasn’t limited to just the NASCAR Cup Series though.
Three-time ARCA Racing Series champion Tim Steele was a 41-time winner in his career, but nowhere was he more successful than Pocono Raceway, where he won a track-record nine times – seven of which came during the 1990s.
Steele had a knack for winning consecutive races at the Tricky Triangle. His first two Pocono victories came consecutively in the fall of 1993 and spring of 1994, then went on to win a track-record five straight Pocono races from 1996 through 1998.
Back in the Cup Series, Bobby Labonte closed the decade with a season sweep at the Tricky Triangle in 1999. The Pocono 500 that June, though, was a hard-earned triumph.
Labonte had previously struggled quite a bit at Pocono until the 1998 Pennsylvania 500 where he finished fourth.
Fast forward to 1999 and Labonte found himself leading on a restart with just four laps to go. Mark Martin lined up right behind him with Gordon third, but Gordon got the better restart and rocketed around the outside of Martin through Turn 1 and into second place.
Gordon was in the midst of his Pocono peak and was reeling in Labonte with each passing moment. Nonetheless, Labonte was able to hold on for the win by just 0.34 seconds over Gordon, the eventual 1999 champion.
“It just kind of clicked,” Labonte said of his team’s turnaround at Pocono. “It didn’t click here [mentally] as much as it clicked on the car, and what we did to it to make it work. And I just remember that that made our program different for a lot of tracks, especially Pocono.”
Hard-nosed racing was the focal point of Pocono Raceway throughout the 1990s. That only ramped up another notch in the 2000s.
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