The only disappointment for race fans this week should be that the Sunoco Red Cross Pennsylvania 500 was rescheduled for Monday due to rain, resulting in many NASCAR loyalists to miss the live broadcast of the event. That’s because – wouldn’t you know it – there was finally a good stock car race at Pocono Raceway and not everyone was able to witness it!
Based on the rain, we should have known this race at Pocono would be a good one; I’ll get to that a little later on. In the meantime, for the fans lucky enough to catch the race the only thing they could have possibly missed is the nap that most have become accustomed to taking somewhere about halfway through the event. Absent of any real excitement, as fans watch a single-file parade of colorful racecars play follow-the-leader lap after lap, many have learned through the years that talking a little snooze during Pocono does little to harm their race-viewing experience. In fact, more often than not, the nappy-pooh becomes the highlight of an event that usually offers little else in the way of entertainment.
But now, suggestions to shorten these races and/or give one of the track’s two dates to a more deserving venue have been muted for the time being, as the racing community gets busy catching their breath and marveling at the show both the track and NASCAR pulled off. The day was even more miraculous considering expectations for a memorable race were not high for the 500-mile event to begin with, the delay until Monday reducing them to the “let’s get this over with and move on” category. However, the ticket-purchasing spectators, teams, and drivers apparently never got the memo that the race was not supposed to be anything except another Pocono “borefest.”
Unfortunately, as you might expect, there were millions less viewers for the Monday race than had it been run as scheduled on Sunday. The reasons for the dropoff in numbers are pretty self-evident… folks have to work. Surprisingly, though, a large of number of ticket-buyers did not abandon the track after enduring a soggy weekend. Credible trackside observers (obviously not employed by NASCAR or Pocono Raceway) estimated that the 2.5-mile triangle with seats for 76,800 ticket purchasers drew a crowd of 75%-80% of its seating capacity.
Those in attendance enjoyed clear, blue skies and comfortable temperatures throughout the running of the race. The 500-miler itself had a little of everything that folks claim to want out of a stock car event; side-by-side, door-rubbing passing that is normally reserved for just the short tracks on NASCAR’s schedule. At other times, or in conjunction with the roughhousing style of racing, shades of the popular and daring “bumpdrafting” and dicing that are commonplace at the superspeedways of Talladega and Daytona were in play.
As the race unfolded, it added in a little of what folks usually like about road racing on this “roval:” pit-road strategy! The last stop of the day, with 30 laps still to be raced, saw the side-by-side restart consisting of top-15 cars that took on four new tires intermingled with others that gambled just two would improve their final finishing positions.
There was no shortage of heated exchanges and retaliations, either. David Stremme and Robby Gordon were each penalized five laps for their over-the-top retaliations towards one another, unable to keep from bumping and banging under green or under caution. Some late-race wrecks also caused tempers to flare, as in one of several instances involving drivers, the normally reserved 2000 Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte let it be known that he was none too happy with Roush Fenway driver David Ragan after being spun out and wrecked by him.
Like with any good story, there needs to be a good ending to finish things off – and Denny Hamlin’s win provided just that. Halting a 50-race winless drought with a hard-fought victory, the 28-year-old then tugged at the heartstrings of anyone with a… well, heart. In his victory lane interview, the driver unsuccessfully attempted to hold back tears as he explained why he believed he had won. “We’ve come close in a lot of races this year and come up short,” Hamlin said as the TV cameras captured the genuinely emotional moment. “But we had some angels with us today.”
Of course, one of the angels the Chesterfield, Va. native spoke of was that of his grandmother, Thelma Clark, who passed away earlier in the week. Hamlin had let it be known that he had mixed feelings about even participating in the race and leaving his family to grieve; but in the end, he believed his grandmother, who he said was his No. 1 fan, would be there with him.
All those unique stories left Monday’s Pocono race as one for the memory banks. There really are not many other races in the 35-year history of the track hosting Cup events where that can be said; but curiously, three in particular come to mind, with the common thread being that they all occurred on Mondays. Here’s a quick summary of the other rain-delayed races:
In 1979, the same year that Cale Yarborough helped to up NASCAR’s visibility nationwide after a televised donnybrook with Bobby and Donnie Allison during the nationally televised Daytona 500, he won a wild Coca-Cola 500 at the end of July. The race saw an unheard of 56 lead changes between only eight drivers, a Pocono record that still stands to this day. Rookie Dale Earnhardt also fractured both collarbones in a hard crash after leading 43 laps.
21 years later, in June of 2000, the late Earnhardt participated and was a key player in another memorable Pocono race. Now no longer a rookie, the seasoned seven-time champion was bested at his own game and the comment “live by the sword, die by the sword” was repeated at water coolers all over the nation. Certainly, nothing polarized pro-Earnhardt and the “anyone but Earnhardt” legions at the time like Jeremy Mayfield did in winning the Pocono 500 on turn 3 of the last lap. Pushing Earnhardt up the track with his front bumper, Mayfield intimidated the Intimidator, forcing the legend to save his Chevrolet while the young upstart took the checkered flag instead.
Of course, the third of the three rain-postponed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races held on Monday was August 3rd, 2009 – and we’ve already discussed how exciting that was. Now, the question is whether this week’s race was an anomaly or an example of how fans can expect racing at Pocono Raceway to be in the future with newly designed race cars and double-file restarts. But if it doesn’t work out so well when we come back next year… maybe NASCAR should consider scheduling the races on Mondays.
And that’s my view from turn 5.