Did we just see the future of NASCAR in the eastern mountains of Pennsylvania?
Ryan Blaney, age 23, passed one former champion to take the lead at the Pocono International Raceway, then held off another to get his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup win on Sunday.
Erik Jones, the ever-aggressive driver who looks more like the high school kid next door than a NASCAR lead foot, finished third at age 21.
Darrell Wallace Jr., age 23 and better known as Bubba, brought more diversity to NASCAR by becoming the first African-American to compete at NASCAR’s highest level in just over a decade.
We might have seen the past at Pocono, too. The Wood Brothers, the legacy team that launched with a modified Ford first raced by Glen Wood in 1950, fielded the winning entry for Blaney and scored its 99th career victory. And Wallace drove for Richard Petty Motorsports, which was launched in 1949 by patriarch Lee Petty, who drove a neighbor’s Buick in NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock race.
Then there were the grandstands — relatively full. While this development could be a sign of the past, it also might mean that fans may have caught on to the new stage format used by NASCAR in its Cup series. It’s become pretty clear that drivers need to race from the drop of the green if they expect to be a season’s champion by year’s end.
Jimmie Johnson, who is seeking an eighth title this year, raced hard enough to blow out his brakes entering Turn 1 at over 200 mph and was fortunate to walk away from a heavy crash. There was a time when drivers were more inclined to save their brakes, but stage points were on the line.
Whatever the portents might be, this was one of the happier scenes in NASCAR’s premier series in a recent while. That’s because of the admiration for Blaney and the respect for the brothers Wood.
Blaney’s father, Dave, a World of Outlaws sprint car champion, switched from open-wheel racing to NASCAR in 2000, but never won a race in 14 full seasons. In addition to being likable and fast, the Blaneys have paid their dues. The team directed by Leonard and Glen Wood, meanwhile, helped build NASCAR in the 1960s, then helped sustain it when the factories pulled out in the 1970s. And here they are making a comeback worthy of Lazarus to gain their first victory since 2011.
At the center of this maelstrom of good vibes is Ryan Blaney, slender and fresh-faced. He carries himself just short of a swagger and drives with the bravado of a getaway man. If he hadn’t hustled his car all day, he might not have ever made it to fourth place on the final restart. From there he ran down Kyle Busch, who had the day’s strongest car but found himself on the wrong side of worn tires.
New leader Blaney then held off Kevin Harvick, one of the sport’s slickest late-race chargers, by coolly adapting his lines and tactics, including using a downshift at the Tunnel Turn.
Adding to the emotional leverage was the fact that Blaney has had some strong Fords from the Wood Brothers this year and last, but never could close the deal due to mishaps along the way. Now he’s crossed the Rubicon and has beaten the perennial stumbling block for so many drivers — getting that first win.
“I think it’s a great day,” said Blaney. “We’ve had a bunch of new winners this year. Ricky (Stenhouse) got his first win this year. I think there was another — who else? Austin (Dillon) won the 600. So, it’s a huge year for the rookies, and then Bubba making his first start this weekend.”
Blaney is glad to be part of the new wave, but acknowledged that he was a bit jealous of Kyle Larson, Stenhouse and Dillion getting their wins before him.
“I think we’re all kind of coming into our own,” said Blaney. “Erik Jones had a great day today. He run third. He had a super-fast car all day. So, I think it’s pretty neat to just be part of the group.”
Blaney’s victory is likely a tipping point. He’s sure to be followed by Jones, Chase Elliott and Ty Dillon, which would establish a core group that may begin to draw the younger demographic that NASCAR so desperately needs in the face of its legacy fans dwindling.
That’s a point not lost on the “middle-aged” stars. Brad Keselowski, who gave Blaney his biggest professional break in 2012 by hiring him to drive for his NASCAR Truck team, interviewed him in Victory Lane on behalf of Fox Sports. Busch, who melted down in anger after getting beat on fuel mileage by Dillon in Charlotte, sent a congratulatory tweet, predicting it would be the first of many wins for Blaney.
While he’s not quite a legacy owner as far as NASCAR is concerned, another team with a long pedigree, the one owned by Roger Penske, had a hand in this victory. Eddie and Len Wood, the second-generation car owners, first met Penske in the early 1970s at the old Riverside, Calif., road course while working for their father’s team and have remained friends and admirers of “The Captain.” Penske, in fact, has Blaney under contract and has loaned him to the fellow Ford team of the Wood Brothers for the past two seasons.
After some recent snafus by the Wood Brothers, such as broken axles that have dropped the team out of the top 10 in the points standings, Penske announced not long before the Pocono race that he would enter a third car in 2018 at Team Penske for Blaney. This reinforced the idea that Blaney is a talented, front-line driver and at the same time indicated the Wood Brothers and crew chief Jeremy Bullins had best take advantage of his presence.
That now means focusing on the current season’s championship, where Blaney has a postseason berth thanks to Sunday’s victory. He also now has eight playoff bonus points and is tied with Larson for fourth among all drivers.
“I feel like our approach this year has been the right approach of going out there and trying to win races and win stages at the same time,” said Blaney, who apparently was born flat-out and sees no reason why his team can’t win a title.
A 23-year-old sophomore driver as the first Monster Energy champion under the new stage rules? Stranger things have happened. Besides, when you’ve just won your first NASCAR Cup race, the world is your oyster.