Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LONG POND, PA – Pocono Raceway, in the beautiful mountain-scape of Long Pond, Pa., has long been highly regarded for not only the racing it produces, but the historical moments it has hosted in one of the most unique locales that NASCAR visits.
It’s motto “Back to the Good Old Days” speaks volumes about the track’s history and the atmosphere, appreciated by fans attending the races and teams competing in the races.
The 2.5-mile track in Northeastern Pennsylvania’s foothills plays host to this week’s NASCAR Cup Series HighPoint.com 400 (Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the 90th NASCAR Cup Series race at Pocono.
Pocono Raceway is still operated as a family business – a third generation of the Mattioli and Igdalsky family overseeing the facility created, cared for and loved by Dr. Joseph “Doc” and Dr. Rose Mattioli.
The facility initially offered up a well-received three-quarter mile track that opened in 1968, but the family decided to realize more potential – a booming local race scene and the benefit of having big cities such as New York City and Philadelphia less than a two-hour drive away.
The “Tricky Triangle” as Pocono is known is applauded for both its one-of-a-kind track layout and the competition it annually produces. Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rodger Ward designed the big track in the early 1970s to deliver a unique and competitive race product – and his success was apparent immediately in Pocono’s 1974 debut on the NASCAR schedule.
The track is the same length as Daytona International Speedway, but its layout makes it one of the most unique offerings on any series schedule. Instead of four turns as is most typical at tracks where NASCAR visits, Pocono features three turns – each entirely different and built to resemble a corner from other famous venues.
Turn 1, for example, features 14-degree banking and is built to be like Trenton (N.J.) Speedway – one of the Northeast’s famed racing facilities until it closed in 1980. Turn 2 is nicknamed “The Tunnel Turn” and banked eight-degrees, its shape is similar to a turn at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Turn 3 is banked six-degrees and was specifically built as ode to a Midwestern classic: The Milwaukee Mile.
There is even a message on the Pocono race track wall that reads, “What turn 4?” And the Pocono front straightaway – at 3,740-feet – is the longest straight of any track on the schedule.
The inaugural NASCAR Cup Series race was held in August, 1974 and featured a non-surprising storyline: Richard Petty leading the field to the checkered flag and claiming that first Pocono victory by 18-seconds over Buddy Baker.
Through the years, racing’s best have hoisted trophies at the track. Tim Richmond (1986-87) and Bobby Allison (1982-83) each won three consecutive races there. NASCAR Hall of Famer Cale Yarborough won the 1979 race that featured 56 lead changes, a track record that still holds today.
NASCAR Hall of Famer Jeff Gordon and current Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin hold the record for most wins at Pocono Raceway, each claiming six victories. In fact, Hamlin boasts some amazing history at the track. His Pocono win in 2006 marked the first of his storied NASCAR Cup Series career and he answered it with a trophy in the season’s second race too – earning a rare rookie sweep.
“I don’t know what it was,” Hamlin says even today of his success at the Pocono track. “I remember my first time there just sitting out on pit road waiting for some sort of veteran to drive by me so I could follow him, and I remember it was Mark Martin. I went out there and I was probably five-six car lengths behind him and was like, ‘okay, this is the line you take.’
“And then five or six laps later, I passed him. And I was like, all right, I think I got it. It was just an interesting scenario and it really fit my driving style.
“I think it’s a race track where a certain driving style rewards it. I’ve always been a guy that’s been easy on the entry and hard on the exit and with the long straightaways there I think that really made my car fast doing that.”
Popular driver and now perennial championship challenger, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney celebrated his career first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Pocono in 2017, then driving for the Wood Brothers Racing team. The win was especially significant for Blaney, who remembers making his first quarter-midget race start at the track’s quarter-mile as a kid – marking the launch of his racing career.
“I never thought about it until we won there, but it’s kinda cool, that’s where I made my first quarter-midget start and got started racing,” Blaney said. “My dad’s family is from not too far away [in Ohio] so there are a couple connections.”
“Every track has their fame in their own right. It might not have the same crown jewel effect like Daytona or Darlington, but Pocono has great significance to me and it’s super cool that I won there with the Wood Brothers. They won there twice before – with Neil Bonnet and Pearson – so that was cool to add my name to the guys that won there at that track.”
Hamlin (2006) and RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher (2016) join Blaney as active drivers to score their first victory at the renowned facility.
“This is our roots and a lot of our fans are here,” Hamlin said of the importance of the Pocono track. “When you look at the upgrades the facility has made, you definitely want to reward them for that investment and care. And I think the fans have showed up and supported it.”