Editor’s Note: Have you heard of our FREE Frontstretch Newsletter, delivering more NASCAR news, commentary, trivia, and more right to your inbox every morning? If not, well, it’s time to sell you on it. Today, we’re showcasing the weekly column called Turn Back the Clock, Phil Allaway’s look at a classic race from the track we’re visiting each weekend.
Hello, race fans, and welcome back to Turn Back the Clock. This week, the Sprint Cup Series races at Pocono Raceway near Long Pond, Pennsylvania. Competition here in recent years has suffered greatly, struggling after to NASCAR banned overdrive transmissions when the gear rule was instituted for 2005.
Prior to the gear rule, cars could get off of the turns much better than they do now, creating some great side-by-side battles. However, this also meant that they were more susceptible to transmission failure, causing NASCAR to make a change that keeps more cars intact for 500 miles – but also leaves them struggling to find speed to make a pass.
This week’s entry in the Turning Back the Clock series looks back at one of these pre-rule change races, the 1998 Pocono 500. For a few different reasons, what was a benign event at the time has been enhanced by history, becoming one of the more notable races ever run at the tricky triangle.
First off, at the very beginning of the race, Rusty Wallace, who started on the outside pole alongside Jeff Gordon, jumped the start. NASCAR promptly black-flagged Wallace, took away the laps he’d led up to that point, and forced him to serve a stop-and-go penalty. Wallace became a complete non-factor on this day, rejoining the race at the rear of the field, then dropping out after 13 laps with engine failure.
On Lap 6, Ken Schrader’s race came to a difficult end. Entering Turn 3, Schrader, driving the No. 33 Skoal Bandit Chevrolet for Andy Petree Racing, was tapped from behind by Dale Earnhardt while battling to keep his sixth position. Schrader spun out and hit the wall hard, drivers’ side first. Schrader complained of a sore neck after exiting the car, but walked away with some assistance from medical personnel.
Right before Schrader crashed, Jeremy Mayfield, driving the No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford, had taken the lead away from Jeff Gordon. After the restart from Schrader’s crash, Mayfield began to assert control. He didn’t pull away from Gordon, but he held Gordon back with ease.
However, Mayfield was caught by Dale Jarrett, who started ninth, and overtaken on Lap 29 for the top spot. Jarrett led until the second caution was thrown on Lap 35 for smoke and an oil leak out of the No. 42 of Joe Nemechek. Jeff Gordon moved back out front, passing Jarrett on a round of pit stops, and was looking forward to getting back under green.
Unfortunately, the skies didn’t cooperate. During the yellow, it started to rain, eventually necessitating the race to be stopped. This was a recurring theme throughout the afternoon; even though they were able to get all 200 laps in, dark clouds were never that far away. After a one hour and 11 minute red flag and ten laps under caution to finish the track drying operation, the race went back to green on Lap 48. However, it went back under yellow just as quickly because Ricky Rudd’s No. 10 Tide Ford blew an engine.
Just before Rudd’s engine expired, Mayfield reclaimed the lead from Gordon. When the race restarted, Mayfield started to pull out a small gap between himself and the No. 24 Chevrolet.
Meanwhile, on Lap 58, a bizarre incident occurred on pit road between the No. 30 Gumout Pontiac of Derrike Cope and the No. 36 of Ernie Irvan. Exiting Turn 3, Irvan basically tried to run over Cope’s Pontiac. This spun both cars into pit road. However, no caution was thrown for this unusual wreck, although both cars spent some time on pit road afterwards.
Another incident where the yellow could have been thrown was on Lap 68, when Johnny Benson hit the outside wall exiting the Tunnel Turn.
It appeared that Benson clipped the wet grass on the entrance to Turn 2 and was thrown into the concrete. Benson went to the garage for repairs after the wreck, finishing 58 laps down in 36th.
Meanwhile, after a round of green-flag pit stops, Mayfield reassumed the lead on Lap 89 just as the caution was coming out for the stalled No. 36 of Ernie Irvan, who had a broken clutch. Once the race restarted, Mayfield reasserted his control, keeping the lead until he pitted under green on Lap 120 during another round of stops.
However, Jeff Gordon beat Mayfield off pit road in what could only be described as an unusual green flag stop sequence. Both Gordon and Mayfield were judged to have broken the pit road speed limit entering pit road, so they were both held in their stalls. After their penalties ended, Gordon pulled ahead of Mayfield, but both drivers lost ground to their closest competitors.
By this point, the skies were beginning to look very dark and ominous again. Rain was imminent, and since the event was after half distance, it could end the race. However, it was not rain that brought out the yellow but a catch can, dropping onto the racetrack after it stay attached during a stop. Bill Elliott’s No. 94 also blew an engine at this point right as the bad weather started. The shower was very brief this time, though, keeping the race from being red-flagged. As a result, the track went green on Lap 140 and Mayfield pulled away once again.
On Lap 150, Mike Skinner hit the wall in the Tunnel Turn and shed his TV Panel while trying to get back to the pits, causing another yellow. At this point, Mayfield and the rest of the leaders pitted once again, and pit strategy reigned. Dale Jarrett exited the pits with the lead, followed by Kyle Petty, Darrell Waltrip, and Kenny Irwin, Jr. All of these drivers took advantage of excellent tire wear and took two tires while the leaders took four. The leaders entering the pits ended up towards the back of the top 10 as a result. Jarrett then held the lead until the next caution came out on Lap 168, for Jerry Nadeau throwing sparks off his No. 13 FirstPlus Financial Ford due to a blown left-front tire.
This brought the teams back to pit road. It was here that Darrell Waltrip took two tires again and assumed the lead, putting himself in position to try to win for the first time since 1992. Waltrip led on the restart, and held the advantage through the next caution for Chad Little’s crash. However, coming to complete Lap 179 and start 180, Jeremy Mayfield got a run on Waltrip exiting Turn 3 and passed him for the lead entering Turn 1. From here, Mayfield pulled away from the pack. A late-race caution for a spin by Todd Bodine closed the gap, but Mayfield held his peers off under threatening skies (once again) to win the Pocono 500, his first career Winston Cup win.
In Victory Lane, Mayfield, driving in his fifth year in Winston Cup, was nearly speechless.
“I’m trying to wake up, I think I’m still dreaming,” Mayfield told TNN’s Glenn Jarrett in Victory Lane. “This has been a lifetime dream to win a Winston Cup race, and it came true today.”
Pole sitter Jeff Gordon finished about three-tenths of a second behind Mayfield, followed by Dale Jarrett. Roush Racing teammates Jeff Burton and Mark Martin rounded out the Top 5. Darrell Waltrip dropped back to sixth place in the Pennzoil No. 1, subbing for the injured Steve Park. This turned out to be Waltrip’s last career top-10 finish. Wally Dallenbach, Jr., driving the No. 50 for Hendrick Motorsports in place of Ricky Craven (out due to Post-Concussion Syndrome) finished seventh, followed by Dale Earnhardt and Sterling Marlin. Berwick, Pennsylvania’s own Jimmy Spencer rounded out the top 10.
I hope you enjoyed this look back in time. Next week, we’ll have a classic race from Michigan International Speedway. Until then, enjoy the action at Pocono. Bye for now.