Pocono: Of A Gutsy Keselowski And “Doc” Mattioli

Noting the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono Raceway:

 

** I think Brad Keselowski ably showed us what a stock car driver is all about.

He’s supposed to have skills beyond measure when behind a steering wheel of a race car that goes very fast. He’s supposed to be daring and not afraid, especially when it comes to taking the kind of chances that separate victory from defeat.

And he’s supposed to be like every other professional athlete. He is required to play with pain whenever possible.

That, by the way, is something NASCAR drivers have done routinely over the years. If a competitor is unable to race, his physical debilitations must be significant.

Most of us would think a broken left ankle, a pain-ridden right foot and a very sore back would be enough to keep a driver out of his car.

Not Keselowski and not at Pocono.

After he sustained the serious injuries during testing at Road Atlanta on Aug. 3, there was some doubt that Keselowski would be able to compete at Pocono.

But he was cleared to do so – he insisted all the while he would – and in a gutsy performance the driver of the No. 2 Penske Racing Dodge won the race and earned his second victory of the season.

Under caution, Keselowski stayed on the 2.5-mile track with old tires with 21 laps left in the rain-interrupted race.

On the restart, leader Kyle Busch left an open path for Keselowski when Busch shot low on the track to fend off a charge by Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski led the rest of the way.

With the victory, which accompanies his first of the season at Kansas, Keselowski is now in a position to claim a “wildcard” spot for the Chase.

He moved up three positions in the point standings and is now 18th, the only driver in the top 20 with two victories. That currently makes him first in line among the “wildcard” candidates.

He’s moved ahead of Denny Hamlin, 11th in points with one win, and Paul Menard, 14th in points, also with a single victory.

Last year at this time Keselowski was 25th in points with no top-10 finishes.

His improvement is impressive, almost as much as his fortitude.

“For him to go through that wreck this week and get back on his horse and find success, it’s only going to make Brad Keselowski a better race car driver.”

And to think he’s pretty darn good right now.

 

** Of the drivers whose chances of making the Chase hinged on improved points position, victory or both, there were no major gains at Pocono.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced to his first top 10 in the last seven races with a ninth-place run. However, he remains 10th in points with no victories.

Tony Stewart overcame tire problems to finish 11th, yet remains ninth in points, also without a win this year. He’s only a single point ahead of Earnhardt.

Hamlin led plenty of laps in his bid to win at the speedway for the fifth time in his career, but his chances were spoiled by a wayward lug nut during his last pit stop.

He finished 15th and is still one spot out of the top 10.

Paul Menard, a winner at Indy last week, finished 10th at Pocono for his seventh top-10 run of the season.

But he, too, failed to advance in points and remains in 14th place.

David Ragan got into a crash that severely damaged his Ford. After lengthy repairs he limped home in 34th place.

His Chase hopes took a severe blow. Although he, too, has a victory, he fell three positions to 19th in points. The odds are now very much against him.

 

** When Dr. Joseph “Doc” Mattioli met with the media at Pocono Raceway on Aug. 5 to announce he was retiring as CEO, I suspect several people felt as I did.

Retire? The “Doc?” Heck, he’s 87 years old and in a wheelchair. Hadn’t he put himself out to pasture several years ago?

Obviously not. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons why someone continues to work until he or she is nearly 90 years old, and one of them has to be a love of the task and all that comes with it.

I’m certain that applies to “Doc” and his wife Rose, who has been at his side as an associate (and maybe his boss from time to time) for decades.

When Mattioli came along as a force behind the creation of Pocono back in the late 1960s, he became part of an exclusive fraternity. He was one of those few men with the ambition and daring to build a speedway and become a part of NASCAR.

This was an undertaking that promised nothing when it came to financial success. It was always a calculated risk, as was proven so many times over the years as one track after another ceased operations and fell victim to weeds.

I’m sure there were folks who thought that to build a superspeedway in the Pennsylvania countryside was a crazy idea.

I’m also sure that from time to time Mattioli may have thought he’d lost his mind.

But he was very much like the track owners who came along before him – he was determined, smart, stubborn and, most important, tough.

He was no different from his peers, whose tracks survived tough economic times, unsavory characters and the changing local political atmosphere.

They included Clay Earles at Martinsville, Larry Carrier at Bristol, Paul Sawyer at Richmond, Enoch Staley at North Wilkesboro and, yes, Bill France Sr., the NASCAR founder who was also the head of the fledgling International Speedway Corp.

There was also Bruton Smith, who helped create Charlotte Motor Speedway. But his resolve and determination were better displayed after the track went bankrupt.

Smith disappeared, returned and created a racing empire.

Speaking of empires, once there were none. A speedway’s owner was the absolute boss who didn’t answer to stockholders for one very good reason. There were none. There might have been a partner or two but a track was the bastion of a single man and his family.

The track bosses ruled with an iron hand and were fiercely defensive of their speedways.

Once, when I criticized the use of guardrails at Richmond, Sawyer threatened to remove my head from my body.

I suggested that Thursday qualifying at Martinsville was a waste of time. Earles responded by suggesting he’d make my career a waste of time.

This is not to say all these pioneer track promoters were marketing geniuses or, in some cases, even cared to be.

Some realized that in order to attract more fans, make more money and assure a future with NASCAR, funds had to be spent on track improvements, especially when it came to fan amenities.

Others did little or nothing. They simply sold tickets and opened the gates.

Mattioli was often criticized because, to some, his track didn’t keep pace with the times. He’s admitted he heard what he’s called “the bad stuff.”

But, despite the time it might have taken, Pocono has improved all the way around and is a firm part of NASCAR today.

And it stands on its own. It hasn’t folded, like North Wilkesboro, or been gobbled up by ISC, as have Martinsville and Richmond, or is it part of Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. outfit, as is Bristol.

In fact, Mattioli has rebuffed Smith’s offers many times over the years.

“He wanted to buy it for many years,” Mattioli said. “But we always felt that it was something special.”

Pocono has always been a family-owned and operated property and that will continue for many years.

Mattioli’s grandsons and granddaughter are now in charge, holding the positions of CEO, president, COO, Executive Vice President and secretary/treasurer.

They cannot sell the track until after the passing of the Mattiolis and their children.

So Pocono remains the type of track that once was prominent in NASCAR – its success remains in the hands of an enterprising man and his family.

Which means that while he may be 87 years old and in a wheelchair, as a promoter who adhered to the ways of the past and made them work, “Doc” Mattioli stands alone.

The Status Of The Chase Field And Other Observations

Offering a few observations as the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit readies for this weekend’s race, the 21st of the season, at Pocono Raceway.

 

** Counting Pocono, there are six races remaining until the Chase begins after the Richmond event on Sept. 10. The final list of the 12 eligible drivers is, of course, yet to be determined.

But we have plenty of evidence to suggest several drivers don’t have a thing to worry about, some have concerns and others, well, it will be wait until next year.

Not to bore you, but the 12 drivers who make up this year’s Chase field will be the top 10 in points after Richmond and two “wildcard” selections with the most wins who rank between 11th and 20th in points.

Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson, who has won five consecutive championships and is pretty much in everyone’s crosshairs, are first and second in points and unless they both decide to join a monastery, they have clear sailing ahead.

It’s pretty much the same for Kevin Harvick, who is third in points, and Kyle Busch, who stands fourth. Each has three victories this year, more than any other driver so far, and that is going to be more than enough to give them a free pass to the Chase.

Fifth place in points belongs to Matt Kenseth, who has won twice this year, and Jeff Gordon, two spots behind Kenseth, also has two victories.

Neither one of them is losing sleep – they’re in.

Really, it doesn’t take a lot of calculating to figure out that any among the top 10 in points with multiple wins has clear sailing.

Even if they fall out of the top 10, at this point the drivers with two or more victories have paid-up Chase insurance.

Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman also reside among the top 10 with a difference: Each has only a single victory to date.

It’s most likely going to be good enough but it certainly can’t be said they’re on cruise control like the others. If either enters a competitive slump – which can happen in six races – and drops out of the top 10, the situation might become dicey.

It’s definitely dicey for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who ranks 10th in points and is one of two drivers among the top 10 who hasn’t won.

There was a time Earnhardt Jr. was comfortable in the standings and seemed well on his way to making the Chase for the first time since 2008.

But he hasn’t finished among the top 10 in the last six races – proof such a slump CAN happen – and thus he’s left with three choices.

He holds his position over the next six races, improves it or gains a measure of security with a victory – which, by itself, is no guarantee.

The situation is similar for Tony Stewart. He’s ninth in points and does not have a victory. He’s three points ahead of Earnhardt Jr. and nine behind teammate Newman.

Like Earnhardt Jr., he can ill afford another drop in points. Either he holds it, moves up or earns that elusive first victory.

Being the competitor he is, Stewart most likely isn’t thinking about points. He wants to win – period.

Denny Hamlin is 11th in points with one victory and leads the pack of top-10 “outsiders,” at least for now. It’s not a secure position. But then, Hamlin should be considered a favorite at Pocono, where he has won four times since 2006.

Paul Menard, who won at Indy for his first career victory, is, at 14th, is the second driver outside the top 10 with a victory. David Ragan, ranked 16th, is the third and last.

However, there’s a sizable handful of drivers among the top 20 who haven’t won yet and probably should have.

It would seem the final field for the Chase is very much up in the air as we enter the final six races before it begins.

The suggestion here is to be watchful of Stewart, Earnhardt Jr., Hamlin, Menard and Ragan. I don’t know for sure, of course, but at least one of them is going to be disappointed.

 

** I can’t say I’m overly surprised that Edwards signed a new multi-year agreement to drive for Roush Fenway Racing, with which he’s been associated since 2004, his entire Sprint Cup career.

I freely admit that, given the amounts of money he was supposedly offered by Joe Gibbs Racing via rumors, I wouldn’t have been startled if he had moved on, either.

Edwards, by the way, never gave us a whiff about making a move and Gibbs was equally silent.

Silence fuels rumors. Lack of denial means one thing – where there is smoke ….

Edwards said he decided to stay because of the opportunity team owner Jack Roush provided him and that he has all the resources he needs to win. He added that he’s leading the points and is in a great position for the Chase.

With Roush Fenway Edwards indeed has all it takes to become a champion. He should have been one already with his nine victories in 2008, the year he finished second in the final standings.

He’s now in the prime position to knock Johnson off the champion’s pedestal – not that it will happen, of course – but the fact he’s where he is has to count for a lot as far as Roush Fenway, and Ford, are concerned.

Roush hasn’t won a title since 2004, the second year of what is now the Chase, nor has Ford, which has had to stand by and watch Chevrolet dominate.

I’m guessing that might well be why Ford tossed in its own bucks to keep Edwards in the fold.

I wouldn’t be surprised if money figured into all of this, of course, but it’s not always the final answer. Team stability, resources and proven competitive certainty count for a great deal. Edwards has that.

No driver can be certain he can still find it all somewhere else – even if evidence suggests it is all there, as it does for Gibbs.

Maybe, among other ones, Edwards reached that conclusion. If so, in one man’s opinion, it very likely played a role in his final decision.

 

** The liquidation sale for the NASCAR Café in Las Vegas began a couple of days ago. Fans were able to buy anything from helmets, uniforms, prints and photos to bar equipment.

At one time there were NASCAR Cafes in multiple locations, including Myrtle Beach, Nashville and Orlando in addition to Vegas. As far as I know, the café in Vegas was the last one standing.

They were created during NASCAR’s tidal wave of popularity in the late ‘90s. The sanctioning body seized the opportunity to put its name on everything from restaurants to Speedparks, arcades with simulators, games, souvenir shops, its own library of books (including romance novels) and a host of other things.

It all seemed to be overkill and that was pretty much proven after NASCAR’s popularity flat-lined.

Besides, theme restaurants, for the most part, have withered on the vine. Planet Hollywood is a good example.

As an aside, the NASCAR Hall of Fame isn’t drawing the attendance the Charlotte tourism folks anticipated.

But don’t look for any liquidation sale any time soon – or ever, for that matter.

Pocono A Track That’s Like No Other, And Always Has Been

All of NASCAR’s speedways have their own design and traits that make them all different from one another.

However, in some cases that’s not easy to determine. So many tracks are of the same length and basic design they look like they came off a factory’s assembly line.

You’ve heard all about the “cookie cutter” speedways right? They are the 1.5-mile dogleg ovals that sprung up with monotonous regularity in the 1990s and into the 21st century.

They all appeared to be little more than clones of Charlotte Motor Speedway and they included Las Vegas, Chicagoland, Kansas, Texas and, most recently placed on the Sprint Cup schedule, Kentucky.

It got to the point where some wags begged anyone who had a notion to build a track make it something different – please?

“Hey, can’t anybody build another short track?” they asked. “How about another Bristol or Richmond so new fans could REALLY see something?”

Of course, however it might appear, all the 1.5-milers are not the same – not exactly. As any driver or crew chief will tell you, there are subtle differences that must be accounted for in car preparation.

In other words, it’s highly likely that a car readied for Charlotte isn’t likely going to run particularly well at, say, Texas.

There are several speedways in which the differences are anything but subtle. All it takes is a quick look to discover they are unto themselves. There are no others like them, in some cases, not even remotely close.

There’s the “paper clip” that is Martinsville. Old, venerated Darlington’s oval is egg-shaped. Bristol, a half-mile track, has high banking that is huge and infamous.

Richmond is the only three-quarter mile track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Atlanta may be a 1.5-mile track but its sweeping turns are about as long as its straightaways. At 2.5 miles, Indianapolis resembles a rectangle.

Infineon and Watkins Glen are road courses. That they are is the only thing they share.

And then there’s Pocono Raceway.

There’s not another track like it anywhere, certainly not in the United States.

It, too, is a 2.5-mile track but it’s triangular in shape. There are only three turns. A long straight separates turn one from sharp turn two – the “tunnel turn.” Then it’s a short jaunt to the sweeping turn three before it opens up to the long, speed-building frontstretch.

Outside of the road courses it’s the only track on which drivers have to shift gears, although for a long time the practice became unnecessary. But it’s back.

Pocono is so unique, and admittedly somewhat strange when it comes to speedway design, that at least one motorsports writer called it “the Duckbill Platypus of NASCAR.”

As you might expect, that name didn’t stick.

 

It was built in Long Pond in the lush Pennsylvania countryside near Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and, of course, in the region of the Pocono Mountains.

It opened in 1971 as a target for open-wheel racing. But by 1974 NASCAR came calling. The first Winston Cup race at Pocono was the Purolator 500 on Aug. 4 that year.

The race was the only major NASCAR event held at Pocono that season and it would be eight years before the track got a second date.

Pocono’s debut season was a very turbulent one for NASCAR. It went through points system changes and what seemed to be constant rule alterations that became monumentally frustrating for the teams.

“NASCAR has things so screwed up I don’t know what’s fair and what isn’t,” said Richard Petty, never known a harsh critic of the sanctioning body.

The nation was also strangled by a shortage of gasoline, created largely by a large reduction in oil shipments from the OPEC countries.

To appease the government, NASCAR boss Bill France Sr. asked that tracks reduce the length of their races by 10 percent or shrink the number of cars in a starting field.

Many speedways, including Daytona, cooperated.

Pocono did not. But to be fair, by the time August rolled around, the fuel situation was not good, but it wasn’t a crisis.

Ironically, the Purolator 500 still never ran its scheduled distance of 500 miles.

Bad weather was the culprit. The race was halted for one hour, 22 minutes after it had completed 300 miles, or 120 laps.

When it restarted, Petty sped into the lead on lap 148 and held it for the remaining distance.

Which was eight laps short of the scheduled 200. Another rain shower hit the track and NASCAR felt that to wait it out made no sense.

It was not an auspicious NASCAR debut for Pocono but ultimately it didn’t matter. The track has survived, made multiple improvements in amenities and had its share of memorable moments.

No single driver has dominated Pocono over the years, not like Petty has done at Martinsville and Richmond, Dale Earnhardt and David Pearson at Darlington and any driver who raced for Junior Johnson at Bristol.

But there have been competitors who have won in clumps at Pocono, among them Bobby Allison, Tim Richmond, Bobby Labonte, Jimmie Johnson and most recently Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin has won four times since 2006, twice that year and back-to-back in 2009 and 2010. He’s the defending champion of the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 set for Sunday.

Not to state the obvious here, but Hamlin would be very happy with another insurance win this season since he currently stands 11th in points.

He’s certainly proven he knows how to get around the weird ol’ track.

That’s no small feat.

It Looked Easy As Gordon Firms Up Contender Role

A few observations about the 5-Hour Energy 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Pocono Raceway:

 

** It certainly appeared that Jeff Gordon had a relatively easy day of it. He maintained his race lead after the final series of pit stops, which began on lap 174 of 200, and then pulled away to win by a comfortable margin (2.965 seconds) over Kurt and Kyle Busch.

The victory was Gordon’s fifth at Pocono and the 84th of his career, which ties him for third place with Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison on NASCAR’s all-time list.

You’ll get an argument about that from Allison, who has often declared that he has 85 wins. One was taken away from him, suspiciously, when he won what was then known as a Grand National race in a “non-Grand National” car. According to Allison, his vehicle was competition-approved by NASCAR – and thus the victory should stand.

However, the record book indicates otherwise.

Anyway, Gordon earned his second win of the season, which solidified his position as a championship contender. The Hendrick Motorsports driver stands 11th in points but has a firm grip on an insurance policy.

Under the new system two “wildcard” drivers will be selected for the Chase based upon their number of victories and provided they rank among the top 20 in points.

Gordon is the only driver among positions 11-20 with any victories, thus he’s in an excellent position to claim at least a “wildcard” slot in the Chase.

Juan Pablo Montoya, still looking for his first NASCAR win on an oval track, led after the race restarted on lap 160 from a caution period. Shortly thereafter, Gordon slipped past Montoya to take the lead, which he held after the final restart on lap 182.

Gordon’s victory was accomplished through a seamless performance that saw him easily lead the final 19 laps. It appeared to be as routine as his first victory at Pocono, achieved on June 16, 1996 in the UAW-GM Teamwork 500.

The big difference, however, as that Gordon didn’t overwhelm the field to win 15 years ago. He was virtually handed the victory.

Back then Pocono Raceway had been repaved and speeds were expected to be very high due to the increased grip provided by the new asphalt.

Sure enough, 37 drivers broke Rusty Wallace’s two-year-old track qualifying record. Gordon won the pole with a speed nearly five miles per hour faster than the record.

The race evolved into a tussle among a handful of drivers, among them Gordon, Derrike Cope, Hut Stricklin, Ricky Rudd, Geoff Bodine and Wallace.

One by one, Gordon’s challengers began to fall by the wayside. The gearshift knob in Stricklin’s Ford came off in his hand while he was shifting from third to fourth gear and the transmission failed.

Cope ran into the rear of Robert Pressley’s Chevrolet, which knocked the aerodynamics of Cope’s Ford haywire.

Wallace burned out the clutch on his Ford while leaving the pits after a green-flag stop. Bodine suffered from a lug-nut problem during his final pit stop.

By that time only Rudd remained as a Gordon challenger. But he was no match. Gordon came home a very comfortable three seconds ahead to earn his second straight victory of 1996.

As it was then, it wasn’t too difficult for Gordon this time out at Pocono. And, for him, the best result is that, barring a complete breakdown, he’s assured of an opportunity to earn his fifth career championship.

 

** It might have been clear sailing over smooth waters for Gordon, but that can’t be said for a couple of other championship-caliber competitors.

Points leader Carl Edwards came down pit road on lap 58 and then went behind the wall with engine problems two laps later.

“There was no warning at all, it just went,” Edwards said. “Before the race we talked so much about not over revving the engine and not breaking the transmission and all these things. It is just a coincidence, I believe, that we broke something.”

Edwards was relegated to 37th place, which means his points lead has dwindled from 40 points to six over second-place Jimmie Johnson, who is bidding to win his sixth consecutive championship.

Edwards is only 10 points in front of third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., who scored yet another top-10 finish at Pocono (sixth) and 11 points in front of Kevin Harvick, who is fourth in points. Kyle Busch rounds out the top five.

 

** Certainly one of the pre-race favorites at Pocono was Denny Hamlin. Although he came into the race without a win in 2001, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver had a sterling record at the 2.5-mile, triangular track.

Hamlin had four wins in 10 starts at Pocono, including two of the past three races.

Sure enough, he seemed to have the field covered, dominating the early stages of the race, leading 72 of the first 76 laps and thus establishing himself as the man to beat.

But he took a hit on a green-flag stop on lap 76 when he spent 18.9 seconds on pit road and was relegated to second place behind Montoya.

Then he suffered a flat left-rear tire, was forced back down pit road before the lap 160 restart and was caught back in 21st place before he finished a disappointing 19th.

“When we left pit road and had a flat tire – that is just not your day.” Hamlin said. “When it did that, it sheared the tire and wrapped it around the housing and broke the brake lines so I had no brakes – it was just a slew of problems there at the end.”

 

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