Jeff Gordon – One of The Best At The Tricky Triangle
By: Zach Sturniolo (Contributing Journalist for ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle.’)
(April 28, 2021) Jeff Gordon knows a thing or two — or six — about getting around Pocono Raceway.
No one has won more races at the Tricky Triangle than Gordon, a six-time NASCAR Cup Series event winner around the 2.5-mile track, tied by Denny Hamlin for the track record.
A simple sweep over Gordon’s stats shows outrageous success: six victories, 20 top fives and 32 top 10s in 47 starts — meaning he earned a top-10 finish in 68.1% of all his Pocono starts.
The wins began in 1996 and kept coming through 2012, but each trip to Pocono Raceway seemed like destined to result in a good run for Gordon’s No. 24 team.
Gordon, the NASCAR Hall of Famer and four-time Cup champion, said while Pocono reminds some folks of a road course, it’s the venue’s unique corners that separate it from others on the schedule — and in part, what allowed him to find success.
“On each of those unique corners, it’s going to take a different approach, a different braking technique, a different way to roll through the corner, different line, different commitment, and different handling, [and] obviously [different] characteristics of the racecar,” Gordon said. “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. 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.”
Aside from its shape, the Tricky Triangle is known for its long, daunting front straightaway — the longest on any of NASCAR’s annual circuits. Its layout offered a wake-up call to any driver who took to its pavement, including Gordon.
“It’s an intimidating place with those long straightaways carrying a lot of speed, that wall staring you right in the face as you go down and especially in the tunnel turn,” Gordon said. “And then you start to learn the nuances of the track and the challenges. And of course, when I started there, you had to shift, and I thought that was another cool challenge and aspect of it.”
By the mid-2000s, Gordon was largely the face of NASCAR. The No. 24 had won its four championships and was finding success at every corner of the schedule. Over that time, Pocono patriarch Dr. Joe Mattioli did what he and his family do best — create lasting memories and impressions, even with Gordon.
Gordon was always appreciative of how the Mattiolis treated him, whether at a family dinner or in the garage. But it was driver introductions where Gordon has his fondest memories of Doc.
“[Doc] started to hear the reaction out in the grandstands of people that were cheering for me, but people that were not cheering for me and booing,” Gordon said. “And so while I was perplexed about it and trying to figure it out and come to grips with it, Doc would always remind me is, ‘Hey, all the way to the bank. All the way to the bank.’
“And it was just his way of saying, ‘It’s okay if not everybody likes you — as long as they’re making noise.’ And that reminded me of the same advice that [Dale] Earnhardt gave me. … I always appreciated that, and it got to the point where when we would do driver introductions, I would say it to him before he would say it to me. And so it was always just this thing that we chuckled and laughed about.”
Yet for all of Gordon’s success at Pocono, it’s his terrifying crash in the 2006 Pennsylvania 500 that left the largest lasting imprint on his mind.
Gordon’s No. 24 team went into the race weekend with a brake package that was intentionally lighter, “just pushing the limits of the equipment,” Gordon recalled, trying to maximize the car’s speed. The team knew it was on the edge early in the race weekend, though, as the brake rotors began to crack during practice.
The team, crew chiefed by Steve Letarte, made some adjustments to allow for better cooling to the brake system for the 500-mile event.
“But I noticed fairly early on in the race — I don’t remember how far into it — I had a big vibration coming from the brake pedal,” Gordon said. “And I had a feeling that we were gonna have to take care of the brakes.”
At that point, Gordon’s only goal was to get the car to the end of the race, knowing any kind of failure could result in catastrophe.
“Your worst fear as a racecar driver, when you learn of how long that front straightaway is at Pocono, how fast you’re going into turn one, how heavy you are on the brakes, is to have any kind of a failure,” Gordon said. “But probably the worst failure would be a brake failure.”
On lap 189, Gordon’s worst fear was realized.
At the end of the front straightaway, Gordon went to brake into Turn 1, but the pedal went straight to the floor. A brake rotor shot through the hood of the racecar, and Gordon knew he was in trouble.
“At that moment, all I cared about was trying to get this car slowed down because I had no brakes,” Gordon said. “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 result was a massive impact that left Gordon contemplating whether he would walk away from the wreckage.
“I can say that I survived the experience — because I do think it’s probably one of the closest [instances] that I ever came to thinking of, ‘Hey, walking away from this incident …’ and whether or not I would or not when the incident started,” he said.
“I think what saved me was the fact that there were SAFER barriers installed recently at Pocono, because I don’t know that I survive that crash if it’s just a concrete wall. That was a big impact. It definitely got my attention. It didn’t knock me out but it was a big impact.”
While the memory of his crash sticks with him, his dominance at the track never wavered in the aftermath. Gordon went onto win at Pocono again in 2007, 2011 and 2012. And although it was rain-shortened, his 2012 triumph holds a special place in his heart.
“To me, the most recent wins are always the ones that stand out, and when you have your kids there, that stands out,” Gordon said. “Even though it wasn’t our greatest on-track performance and win, the rain-out and all that stuff, being able to celebrate that with Ingrid and the kids was really memorable because my kids were at this age where they were starting to understand what their dad did and moments like that, how special they were. So to share that with them was something that I’ll always remember.”
Gordon’s experiences around Pocono were always fond. And as one of the sport’s brightest stars, he never took the fans for granted – especially those in the Keystone State.
“I learned early on in my sprint car racing career how passionate fans were in Pennsylvania for short track racing, dirt track racing, modifieds, you name it,” Gordon said. “And that’s what I loved about when you come to Pocono is the fans that come to that event seem to just be some of the most passionate fans of all forms of racing. They’d come to Pocono to enjoy the races, enjoy the events, enjoy the camping, just the whole experience.”
Autograph Alley, which sits against the garage entrance between the Adam Petty Garage and pit road, never failed to catch Gordon’s eye.
“That was unique, really, to any place else that we went, and you always made time for the fans because you just felt it,” Gordon said. “You felt the excitement, you felt the passion, you felt the avidness of that fan base of how hungry and excited [they are for racing].
“Whether you were showing up the airport, or whether you’re at the racetrack, you felt that and they showed that, so you wanted to give back to them. I always think of Pocono as one of the most fan-friendly and fan-engaged racetracks that we went to.”
To see more content from our ’50 Years of The Tricky Triangle’ please visit: poconoraceway.com/50