Ryan Blaney snaps a six-year drought for the Wood Brothers and becomes the third first time winner in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series this season.
Since 1992, the name Blaney has tried to reach the summit in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series known as victory lane. For 473 starts, 1995 World of Outlaws champion Dave Blaney, finished no higher than third on three separate occasions (Darlington I 2003, Talladega II 2007 and 2011), before ending his Cup career in 2014 with little fanfare.
Now, it’s Dave’s son, Ryan, who’s making his own mark in NASCAR’s premiere division and in his 68th career start, he finally put the family name into victory lane at the Axalta Presents the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania Sunday.
Ryan battled Kyle Busch the last 13 laps and didn’t give any room for one another and used every inch of the track. Then with 10 laps to go, Ryan finally cleared Busch at the main straightaway and led for the first time all afternoon.
Busch couldn’t amount a charge as he went down the running order and finished ninth.
As Busch faded, Kevin Harvick responded and was behind Ryan’s back bumper of the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, searching for his first win of the season.
Ryan—racing without team communications—relied on his mirror and driving skills to hold off the 2014 champion and successfully retained his lead by 0.139 seconds and brought the legendary Wood Brothers Racing back to victory lane for the first time since the 2011 Daytona 500 with Trevor Bayne behind the wheel.
It’s the team’s 99th Cup win as Ryan became the fifth driver out of the last seven (Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett, Elliott Sadler and Trevor Bayne) to win for the Wood Brothers and captured their first victory.
The win also was the Wood Brothers’ third win at Pocono, the first since Neil Bonnett July 27, 1980.
Ryan was congratulated by his peers including Darrell Wallace, Jr. and former boss Brad Keselowski who interviewed him in victory lane.
It was Ryan who interviewed Keselowski after winning the Xfinity Series race Saturday as part Fox Sports “Drivers Only” broadcast where active drivers broadcasted the race instead of the regular commentators. Ryan was one of three pit reporters.
Ryan told Keselowski the win was hard to process after battling Busch and Harvick.
“We had to pass Kyle and that was tough,” Ryan said. “He was on older tires and was struggling off (turn) one and we were able to get under him. Then we had to hold Kevin off. He was really fast all day and didn’t want to make a mistake because that would’ve been the worst thing to do. I thank him for racing me clean, that was really cool of him. Glad to bring the team back to victory lane and it’s their 99th win so it’s really special. It was a lot of fun.”
Ryan said he’s going to party with his crew that made his victory possible.
“I can’t have a better group than them and they do such a great job,” Ryan said. “We’ve had a lot of bad luck the past month and a half but it’s great to get back to where we should be running and in victory lane. We’ve locked ourselves in the playoffs and that was awesome. This is really cool.”
Sunday’s win propelled Ryan from 13th to 12th in the points standings, 224 points behind points leader Martin Truex, Jr.
In a post-race conference interview, car owner Eddie Wood said he knew Ryan can win for his team since joining the Cup circuit in 2015.
“Ryan’s special alright. When we put the deal together, right away I knew Ryan was going to special because he just had speed,” Wood said. “Everywhere we went, he had speed and that’s something that doesn’t come easy. Blaney is on his way now and out ran two champions today and on top of their game. To outrun them and win a race at Pocono, one of the toughest tracks we go to, I’m really proud of him and he’s arrived.”
Wood said race wins come unexpectedly after coming up short several races throughout the season.
“We were very close to a win at Texas and very close at Kansas,” Wood said. “It kind of dawned on me and said ‘we weren’t going to win a race where it’s expected that day. We’ll win somewhere that we don’t expect it and it was at Pocono.”
Harvick’s second place effort marked his fifth top-5 of 2017. Harvick said his car dodged an engine scare late in the race and unable to make a charge on Ryan in the corners.
“My team brought up a good car at Pocono, I got behind a couple of times and had a fast-enough car to make it back in front and then I missed a shift from third to second gear, it should’ve blown up but it never blew up,” Harvick said. “There at the end, we couldn’t get into the corner like we needed to all day and I couldn’t stop like I needed to. Ryan can charge the corner so I needed for him to make a mistake and try to get up underneath him on the exit of the corner. Ryan never made a mistake, did a great job and wound up winning the race.”
Rounding out the top-5 behind Ryan and Harvick were Erik Jones, Kyle’s brother Kurt and Keselowski.
Truex, Jr. finished sixth and has a one point lead over seventh-place finisher Kyle Larson.
Jimmie Johnson’s quest of tying Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip at 84 wins ended in dramatic fashion after a brake failure sent Johnson hard into the turn one wall on lap 97.
Johnson’s car smoked at the exit of the main straightaway, went below the apron and through the grass, cutting his speed from 185 to 130 mph and then slapped the outside wall.
Behind Johnson, Jamie McMurray also lost his brakes and wrecked in the same corner Johnson did and ended his afternoon as well.
McMurray’s car spilled tons of oil and his No. 1 Cessna Chevrolet ended up in flames. The mass amount of oil spilled from both drivers stopped the race for 23 minutes. Neither driver was injured from their separate crashes.
Johnson told Fox Sports reporter Matt Yocum he noticed his car was smoking and said the brake pedal went through the floor.
“The smoke may have been brake fluid and it went onto the rotors,” Johnson said. “I can only speculate I had the brakes too hot and when I went to the brakes, it traveled straight to the floor. I didn’t have to pedal to push on. From that point, I threw it in third gear and tried to slow down. I headed into the grass and was wondering why it didn’t turned right and get into the wall sooner but I’m fine and certainly a big scare.”
Johnson added his wreck was the scariest since his Xfinity Series crash (then known as the Busch Grand National Series) at Watkins Glen International June 25, 2000.
“I’m going to change my underwear and get ready to go home,” Johnson said. “I told myself if this ever happened again, I would turn immediately into the outside wall and tried to slow myself down. You’re looking at the corner and all that real estate to the inside, I pointed it down into the infield. Once I was in the grass, I was like ‘Man, I’ve been here before, I should’ve just turned dead right into the wall and got the wall right away.’ But you have a split-second decision to make there but fortunately it turned out well for me and it was an exciting ride.”
McMurray said he didn’t see Johnson crashing until his brake pedal went through the floor, identical to Johnson.
“I didn’t really see Jimmie wrecking until I got on the brake pedal,” McMurray said. “My pedals started to go onto the floor but I had little to pump it and thought was going to be okay. I don’t know if I got into some oil but I started spinning and didn’t have any brakes. It’s weird that we both had the same thing happened at the same point of the race track. Fortunately, we’re both okay and move on.”
Johnson finished 36th and dropped from sixth to seventh in points. McMurray’s third DNF of the season resulted in a 37th place finish and took a hit in the points, dropping three spots from fifth to eighth.
The other headline of the race was Wallace, Jr. making his Cup debut Sunday. Wallace, Jr. became the first African American driver to make a Cup start since Bill Lester at Michigan International Speedway June 18, 2006.
Wallace, Jr. will fill in for the injured Aric Almirola until he’s cleared to race and his debut resulted in a 16th qualifying effort and finished 26th after several pit penalties put him a lap down for the remainder of the race.
After the race, Wallace, Jr. passed out on pit road but made a full recovery and congratulated his friend Ryan before speaking to the media.
Wallace, Jr. said it was a heck of a weekend from start to finish but frustrated on his performance.
“I’m just so bummed out and frustrated with myself and I know my family are going to be hard on me and not be so hard on myself,” Wallace, Jr. said. “I’m competitive and want to win races and lead laps. I just wanted to have a good showing and to speed four or five times—same segment—was tough to swallow and then this race going green the whole time, it was just not our day.”
Wallace, Jr. said he thought he had right mindset going into the race and told spotter Joel Edmonds to be conservative to start off pit road. However, everything changed as Wallace, Jr. struggled using a digital dashboard instead of analog he ran in the Xfinity Series.
“I’m not a fan of the digital dashboards right now and have to figure it out,” Wallace, Jr. said. “It’s jumping around too much and don’t get a true feel of what you’re running down pit road. A lot of the other guys say it’s fine so I just got figure out what I need to do better. It’s frustrating on my part.”
Wallace, Jr. thanked Richard Petty Motorsports for giving him the opportunity to compete in NASCAR’s highest level.
“This is a wonderful day for me and a wonderful day for the sport,” Wallace, Jr. said. “Wish we could’ve gotten a better finish but I’m thankful for the opportunity. I’ve been dreaming about being in the Cup Series since I was a little kid. Now it’s here and made a name for myself. I thought I ran a pretty decent race. I was running by myself and passed a couple of people. I tried not to make anybody too mad and hopefully earned a lot of respect from those guys. I definitely had a blast, at the same time I was little frustrated but we’ll build off it. I’ll practice more on the dash and go debrief with the team and we’ll just get better.”
Wallace, Jr.’s Cup deal came at the same time his Xfinity Series career hit a roadblock as his No. 6 Roush Fenway Ford suspended operations after Saturday’s race at Pocono despite finishing in the top-10 seven times and was fourth in points this season. Wallace, Jr. finished 11th in his last race with Roush.
Milestones and hard hits defined Sunday’s race as the Cup drivers travel to one of NASCAR’s fastest tracks, the Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan June 18 for its 15th race of the season. Joey Logano won last June 12.