By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (December 27, 2021)
While the 1980s and ‘90s brought notable racing highlights to Pocono Raceway, the new millennium brought with it a changing of the guard.
Fierce battles were ever present, but who they involved quickly evolved as the sport’s newest stars started to shine brighter by the year.
We start first with the finest battle for the win of the decade – in the 2000’s first trip to the Tricky Triangle.
In that year’s Pocono 500, Jeremy Mayfield was hot on Dale Earnhardt’s tail after a restart with 13 laps to go. Earnhardt maintained a steady lead but Mayfield followed in his tracks, waiting for an opportunity to get to The Intimidator’s back bumper.
On the final lap, Earnhardt lost momentum at the exit of Turn 2, allowing Mayfield to charge behind the famed Goodwrench No. 3 Chevrolet entering Turn 3. Mayfield nudged Earnhardt, who slid high out of the racing groove and shot through the inside to steal his second career win at Pocono while Earnhardt backslid to fourth place.
More late-race action hit the Tricky Triangle just 13 months later in the 2001 Pennsylvania 500. The day was dominated by Jeff Gordon, who led 121 laps, but a debris caution with 29 laps to go brought fuel strategy into the forefront.
Sophomore driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the advantage over the final 27-lap dash and escaped to a two-second lead over then-two-time Pocono winner Bobby Labonte. That gap allowed Earnhardt to save more fuel, but he was also forced to save more than Labonte’s No. 18 Interstate Batteries Pontiac.
Labonte, the defending series champion, caught Jr. with four laps to go and pounced to the outside of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet exiting Turn 3 coming to two laps to go. Labonte led at the stripe but Earnhardt fought back to maintain the position heading into Turn 1. Finally, heading into the Tunnel Turn, Labonte drove deep into the corner around the outside and surged past Earnhardt Jr. to claim his third and final Pocono victory.
One year later, Bill Elliott found himself in victory lane for a then-Cup record fifth time after the 2002 Pennsylvania 500, but that wasn’t before Steve Park went flying through in the air down the Long Pond Straightaway on Lap 1.
A rainy morning left the infield grass sopping wet by the time the race got underway under overcast skies. Heading down the long back straightaway, Park had a strong run and rode that momentum to the outside of Rusty Wallace. Wallace didn’t realize the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolet was there and pinched Park into the wall. Park spun across the track and in front of Earnhardt Jr., his teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc. The wet grass didn’t slow either car down and Park slammed into the infield guardrail, breaking it and rolling side over side before landing driver-side down in the grass.
The safety of the cars and the give of the guardrail allowed Park to escape without injury. And once the race resumed (despite another rain interruption), Bill Elliott rocketed around Sterling Marlin for the lead and the eventual win with 18 laps to go in a darkness-shortened race. The victory gave Ray Evernham his first Pocono victory as a car owner as well.
The NASCAR scene at Pocono quickly changed in 2003, though. Suddenly, a new crop of drivers started claiming the Tricky Triangle as its playground, starting with Tony Stewart in 2003. After more than a decade of guys like Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd, Bill Elliott and Bobby Labonte nabbing all the wins, Stewart’s win sparked the next generation’s turn at the wheel.
Stewart, Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne suddenly became the men to beat year after year. Johnson, a third-year driver in 2004, swept the season at Pocono before Roush Racing’s youngsters charged to victory lane in 2005 with Edwards and Busch, the then-defending champion.
Hamlin, though, quickly set a new standard. After crediting his pre-race preparation on the computer simulator NASCAR Racing 2003 Season from Papyrus, Hamlin swept pole awards and race victories as a rookie in 2006 – even after suffering a flat tire 50 laps into that June’s Pocono 500 and spinning at the entrance of Turn 2. Hamlin’s success at Pocono became a significant part of his career and earned another win in the 2009 Pennsylvania 500 to close the decade.
But while Hamlin fans remember the 2006 Pocono 500 for his first career victory, fans of Jeff Gordon remember it for a very different reason.
Gordon was dominant at Pocono through the late 1990s but hadn’t rekindled the same success through the early 2000s. Crew chief Steve Letarte brought a particular brake package to Pocono in June 2006 that was intentionally lighter – one that was, in the end, too light.
With 10 laps to go entering Turn 1, Gordon felt his brake pedal go straight to the floorboard, a nightmare for any driver at the end of the longest straightaway on the circuit. The left-front brake rotor exploded through the hood of the No. 24 car, and the four-time Cup Series champion was just along for the ride.
“At that moment, all I cared about was trying to get this car slowed down because I had no brakes,” Gordon recalled in 2021. “So the only thing I could think of was — of course your first reaction is to turn left away from the wall, which is always the wrong thing to do, but [it’s] usually your first instinct and then just try to slow the car down with the transmission.
“I put it in first gear and the car just started rotating, but it pointed me down at the grass. And as I went through the grass, you have no idea what you’re going to deal with when you get there. But as soon as I hit that grass, the car launched up in the air and all I could see was the sky, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m in trouble here.’ You’re looking, but you’re wanting to close your eyes because you just don’t want to know what’s coming up next or how bad it’s gonna hurt. But the car spun around, luckily lost a little bit of speed and then hit with the left side.”
The impact was horrendous and left Gordon wondering whether he would walk away from the wreckage, but the improved safety of his vehicle and Pocono’s SAFER barriers allowed him to escape any injury.
In fact, Gordon found his way back to Pocono’s victory circle one year later, edging Ryan Newman at the moment of caution when rain shortened the 2007 Pocono 500 after 106 of 200 laps.
Nearly two months later, Kurt Busch dominated the Pennsylvania 500 by leading 175 of 200 circuits in the No. 2 Dodge for Team Penske. And following wins by Kahne and Edwards respectively in 2008, Tony Stewart brought his self-co-owned team its first points-paying victory in the 2009 Pocono 500, proving the worth of his new investment at Stewart-Haas Racing.
It was a dramatic decade on track at Pocono, but that new generation pushed the sport to a new era at Pocono in the years to come.
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