By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’) (December 27, 2021)
The start of the new millennium brought with it the generation that made victory lane its home at Pocono Raceway throughout the 2010s.
We start first, of course, chronologically with Denny Hamlin’s victory in the 2010 Gillette Fusion Proglide 500. But as things often go at Pocono, the path to his win wasn’t so straightforward.
Holding a near two-second lead over Tony Stewart, Hamlin was nearing the white flag to cruise to his fourth Pocono win. But instead of taking the white flag, Hamlin was handed a yellow when Kevin Harvick spun Joey Logano in Turn 3 while battling for fifth place (eventually sparking Logaon’s famed, “His wife wears the firesuit in the family,” quote) and setting up a green-white-checkered finish.
Hamlin got the restart he needed, but calamity behind him forced the race to end another another caution when Kasey Kahne was blocked to the Long Pond Straightaway grass by his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate AJ Allmendinger. Kahne clipped the grass and was sent sideways across three-quarters of the field before getting T-boned by Mark Martin and Greg Biffle. Kahne’s No. 9 Budweiser Ford was launched skyward and pirouetted nose-first against the outside wall, its right rear scraping one of the iconic trees along the perimeter of the facility. Ten cars were collected in the melee, but all drivers escaped while Hamlin celebrated in victory lane.
Biffle and Jeff Gordon followed up with wins in the following two Pocono races, but it was Brad Keselowski’s performance in the final 500-mile Cup race at the Tricky Triangle that proved his mental will over his physical pain.
In the days leading into the 2011 Good Sam RV Insurance 500, Keselowski badly broke his ankle in a crash during a test at Road Atlanta. Somehow, with no medicine and just a brace on the broken ankle, Keselowski muscled through the entire race weekend. A red flag for rain with 76 laps to go was a massive advantage for Keselowski, not just for the pain but also for strategy. The 1-hour, 40-minute stoppage allowed Keselowski to rest his ankle for the final run, but crew chief Paul Wolfe gambled to have Keselowski pit shortly before the rain stopped the race, allowing the Miller Lite Dodge to cycle to the lead alongside teammate Kurt Busch for the final 70 laps.
That call and Keselowski’s masterful defense against Kyle Busch brought Keselowski his first of 34 career victories while driving for Team Penske and his lone triumph at Pocono Raceway.
And while the 2000s were the start of NASCAR’s new era, the 2010s brought on a new iteration of Pocono. Family and track patriarch Dr. Joseph Mattioli passed on Jan. 27, 2012 at the age of 86. And although grandson Brandon Igdalsky had already transitioned into the role of CEO and president before Doc’s passing, change was apparent on Pocono’s horizon.
2012 brought the track’s first repavement since 1995 as well as the first 400-mile NASCAR Cup Series races in track history.
Joey Logano and Mark Martin christened the fresh asphalt and inaugural shorter race with a thrilling duel. Following a late-race restart, Logano, who Martin praised as early as when Logano was 10 years old, was right on Martin’s rear bumper. But Martin slipped off Turn 3, allowing Logano to close to his inside.
With four laps to go, Logano nudged Martin high in Turn 1 with a classic bump-and-run, allowing the No. 20 Toyota to charge to the lead while Martin was forced to settle for second a seventh time at Pocono, keeping him winless at the Tricky Triangle.
The victory likely saved Logano’s career – his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing was coming to an end and the win landed him an opportunity to take over the Team Penske No. 22 car in 2013 – but it also broke the heart of his hero.
To this day, Martin still grimaces at the thought of losing that race and missing out on history.
“It was crushing to me …,” Martin recalled in 2021. “I was 53 years old and I was in a position to win my final race in my career, and to have it taken not by a clean pass but by a bump and run was tough to swallow. It’s something that I don’t think about a whole lot, because I’m the kind of guy that just moves on. But we were really close to making some history there. And it would have been great to have gotten that win for [Michael Waltrip Racing] and Rodney Childers and just an incredible team that I got to drive for in 2012 and 2013.”
The next five races turned Pocono Raceway into Hendrick Motorsports’ playground. Each of the team’s four drivers took turns winning the next handful of events at Pocono, with Jeff Gordon (August 2012), Jimmie Johnson (June 2013), Kasey Kahne (August 2013) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2014 sweep) all finding their way to victory lane.
Gordon’s 2012 triumph was his sixth, a record-setting occasion for the most NASCAR wins in Pocono history. Two years later, it was Earnhardt Jr. leaving his own mark with the first Pocono sweep since Denny Hamlin accomplished the feat in 2006 and joining Johnson, Bobby Labonte, Tim Richmond, Bill Elliott and Bobby Allison as the only drivers to do so.
The 2016 Pennsylvania 400 brought on another famous finish – albeit not under normal circumstances. Rain postponed the event from Sunday to Monday, but inclement weather was lingering over Long Pond all day. Once the race got underway, action through passing and pit strategy was at a premium.
A restart at lap 73 of 160 featured a thrilling battle for the lead between Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon, who both knew rain was on its way with halfway on the horizon. The duo leaned on each other out of Turn 3 at lap 81, but that allowed third-place Joey Logano to shoot low and pass both cars for the race lead – just before a caution came out for rain at lap 86.
The race was able to get restarted, but not for long. A low, lingering fog made for virtually no visibility for spotters atop the roof of the grandstands. Chris Buescher, the 2015 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and a Cup rookie in 2016, found himself in the lead thanks to a strategy call by crew chief Bob Osborne that had the No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford in the lead.
The call worked to perfection as the yellow came out with 27 laps to go. The race was red flagged at lap 138, and Buescher became NASCAR’s newest winner.
Ryan Blaney followed that up in June 2017 with a masterful performance of his own to claim his first career NASCAR Cup Series victory.
Despite being unable to communicate with his team for the majority of the event, Blaney capitalized on a restart with 13 laps to go on fresher tires than race-leader Kyle Busch. An intense battle saw Busch drive Blaney to the lowest parts of the track’s longest straightaways, but with 10 laps to go, Blaney wheeled the famed Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford around Busch in Turn 3 to claim the lead. Blaney was hounded by Harvick but managed to hold on by 0.139 seconds for the victory.
And while the early portion of the decade was owned by Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing decided to take its turn atop the Pocono podium as the 2010s wound to a close. Kyle Busch went from being winless at Pocono to winning three of the next four contests at the Tricky Triangle before Denny Hamlin went back to victory lane in 2019. The outlier in between was another JGR-powered Toyota driven by Martin Truex Jr. in 2018, who was driving for the team’s affiliated Furniture Row Racing.
That brought the 2010s to a close and opened a new chapter for Pocono Raceway in 2020 with the first modern-day NASCAR Cup Series doubleheader – one race weekend featuring two Cup Series events, with one race Saturday and another on Sunday.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced the inaugural landmark event to be held in front of empty grandstands and a bare infield, an eerie sight for those fortunate to be on the premises. Each race, however, went off without a hitch. Kevin Harvick finally claimed his first career Pocono win in the Saturday race before the top 20 in that event’s finishing order were inverted to start Sunday’s event. Denny Hamlin then made history of his own the next day by winning his sixth career Pocono race on Sunday, tying him with Jeff Gordon for the most NASCAR wins at Pocono all-time.
Finally, 2021 brought with it a swarm of fans to Pocono Raceway as conditions allowed spectators back onto the property. A sold-out infield crowd and a packed grandstand made the weekend feel enormous, and fans were rewarded with two phenomenal races.
Saturday’s 325-mile contest was full of close-quarters racing and side-by-side action, but Kyle Larson seemed destined to cruise to his first Pocono win and fourth straight Cup victory. Instead, entering Turn 3 on the final lap, the left-front tire of Larson’s Chevrolet went flat and sent him into the wall. Scooting through was his Hendrick teammate Alex Bowman, who won his first race at Pocono and third of the season.
Sunday’s 350-mile race was just as dramatic but for different reasons. Fuel strategy had teams trying to stretch it to the end of the race, but drivers like William Byron and Denny Hamlin fell just short. Instead, it was Kyle Busch – whose transmission was stuck in high gear for much of the race – who conserved just enough gas to claim his fourth career Pocono victory.
It was a dazzling decade in racing that highlighted so much of what Pocono Raceway has always represented – great racing, unique storylines and incredible fans.
It’s been an amazing 50 years and we look forward to seeing where the next 50 takes us.
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