LONG POND, Pa. — Ryan Blaney has been counted among the numerous young drivers with bright futures to debut at NASCAR’s top level in recent seasons.
He made good on that promise Sunday by holding off former champion Kevin Harvick in the closing laps and winning the Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway by a scant .139-second margin, which is about a car length.
Blaney, who grew up watching his father Dave compete in the Cup series at Pocono and elsewhere, was understandably excited after winning so close to where his father and grandfather — dirt-track legend Lou Blaney — lived in Hartford Township, Ohio.
“I think it exceeds the dream a little bit,” he said. “I grew up watching my dad race on this race track and it’s so cool to get the Wood Brothers in Victory Lane, number one, and to do it here at a race track that is really close to Ohio — a home to me — is pretty awesome.”
The victory was the 99th for the storied Wood Brothers Racing team, but only the fifth since 1990.
Blaney had to work for the win more than just holding off Harvick. And he had to do it without radio communication with his crew chief Jeremy Bullins, as his radio failed about 40 laps into the race.
“I was saying we should just unplug my microphone more so I’m not complaining as much throughout the race,” Blaney said jokingly. “But that was just one of the problems that we had, we had a loose wheel early and had to come back down after that, and we didn’t have track position after that, and there [were so few] cautions here that you couldn’t drive your way back up there unless you were just lights out better than everybody else. That’s where they did a great job of putting us in a spot to where we have a shot at it at the end.”
So how did he communicate with his team?
“You know, the old hand on the door for — was it tight, hand on the door?” Blaney said looking at Bullins. “Door is tight, roof was loose, thumb up, thumb down if it was good or not or keyed the mic — because they could hear the mic key, they just couldn’t hear me.”
“There was a lot of Morse code,” Bullins interjected.
Blaney continued, “I could say it put you in your own head a little bit more if you’re not talking as much. No, I would still key the radio and I actually forgot the radio was broken after the last pit stop. I was trying to talk, and they’re like, ‘yeah, we still can’t hear you.’ I completely forgot it was still broken.
“It’s definitely something I’ve never had happen before, but luckily I could hear them and we were able to work something out.
After a caution late in the race, Blaney lined up second with 13 laps to go after a pit stop. Ahead of him was Kyle Busch, who dominated the race by leading 100 of 160 laps and the race’s first stage along the way, who had chosen not to pit.
That left Busch vulnerable and he was quickly passed by Blaney and ultimately Harvick, who set out to run down Blaney.
Harvick couldn’t quite get there, especially with weak brakes, something that bit numerous drivers on Sunday.
“Yeah, we ran him down, just never could charge the corner hard enough to get to his bumper,” Harvick said. “That was our only weakness.
” I mean, we had the car where we needed it pretty much in every corner, just couldn’t charge any of the corners like I needed to with the stopping power that I had.”
For his part, Blaney knew he could win, but a driver who has made 68 starts at the top level can also be expected to make a mistake. He didn’t.
“Just not mess up,” he said of his strategy to hold off Harvick. “He was a little bit better than us all day and then we obviously had clean air, which is king at a lot of places, especially here, and he was able to get to us but not get a run on us. We kind of stalled him out and I just had to hit our marks and not mess up. That was the biggest thing was to hold the line.
“If I could do that, I knew I had a good shot at holding him off. That’s what kind of went through my mind.”
Darrell Wallace Jr., making his Cup debut in the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43, finished 26th after three pit-road speeding penalties.
Another young driver, rookie Erik Jones, finished third, putting NASCAR’s youth movement in full view at one of the sport’s more treacherous tracks which saw seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. exit early.
Team owner Eddie Wood was focused on his driver and for as long as he has him — he could move on to Team Penske, which has an Alliance with Wood, as soon as next year — he’s proud that Blaney’s first win came at Wood Brothers.
“Blaney is on his way now, Wood said. “He outrun two guys today that are champions, and they’re at the top of their game, and to outrun them to win a race here, this is one of the toughest tracks that we go to. Always has been. And I’m really, really proud of him, and he’s here.
“He’s arrived now.