- By Ellen J. Horrow USA Today
LONG POND, Pa. — Ryan Blaney was interviewed by his pseudo teammate Brad Keselowski on Sunday at Pocono Raceway, when Keselowksi took the Fox Sports microphone from pit road reporter Jamie Little in an impromptu and amusing move. Next season, Blaney and Keselowski might be full-fledged teammates.
Blaney scored his first career Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victory after passing 2015 series champion Kyle Bush during a fierce battle after a restart in the closing stages of the Pocono 400 then holding off 2014 champion Kevin Harvick in the final 10 laps.
The win was the 99th career victory for the iconic Wood Brothers team and the sixth of the season for Ford. Three of those six wins have come from Team Penske drivers — two by Keselowski and one by Joey Logano. But Blaney's victory could also be considered a win for Team Penske.
Blaney, 23, got his break in NASCAR driving in the Camping World Truck Series for Brad Keselowski Racing, through parts of four seasons beginning in 2012. That same season, Blaney also began competing in the Xfinity Series part time for Roger Penske. Keselowsi and Penske both saw Blaney's talent and potential, but Team Penske was a two-car operation at the Cup level, so a deal was made for Blaney to drive a Wood Brothers Ford in an alliance with the organization, beginning in 2015.
Penske told USA TODAY Sports last month during a visit in Detroit that he'd like to bring Blaney into the fold as soon as possible — possibly next year — though he would have to commit to expanding to a three-car operation, which Penske hasn't fielded since 2010. With Blaney notching his first Cup win and booking a berth in the playoffs, that could provide more encouragement for the legendary owner.
Blaney has worked with Keselowski and Logano in the Cup Series for 68 races now, and Blaney sees Keselowski as a good friend and mentor. Blaney said it was awesome to have Keselowski come to victory lane to support him.
"I wouldn't be here without Brad," Blaney said. "He's the one who gave me my start in 2012. I started driving his trucks then, which led to the Penske deal (in the Xfinity Series), which led to the Wood Brothers deal. I would be nothing if it weren't for him taking a chance on me. He's been a huge person I've looked up to."
But for all the good vibes at the Wood Brothers and Penske — and Furniture Row Racing — Sunday was a disappointing day for two other notable teams.
Here are three additonal takeaways from Pocono:
HENDRICK TAKES IT ON THE CHIN: Hendrick Motorsports saw three of its four drivers finish 35th or worse in the 39-driver field, with all three drivers failing to finish the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (38th) was the first to depart with gear shifting and transmission problems after only 58 of 160 laps. Last week's winner, Jimmie Johnson (36th), couldn't make it to 100 laps when his brakes failed and he slammed hard into the outside wall, ending his day. Kasey Kahne (35th) followed Johnson, crashing as a result of brake failure with 20 laps remaining. Only Chase Elliott was able to race to the finish, coming home eighth.
GIBBS STILL WINLESS: Another race, another day of disappointment for Joe Gibbs Racing. Kyle Busch led a race-high 100 laps but came up empty for the 14th time in 14 races this season. Busch took his last lead on Lap 141, but couldn't hold off Blaney and a slew of other racers who had pitted for fresh tires after a caution on Lap 142. He was caught and passed on Lap 150 and faded to ninth, declining to talk to reporters after the race. Pocono marked the third time in 2017 that Busch has led the most laps but failed to win. His 703 laps led this season ranks second to Martin Truex Jr., who has two wins. Busch still was JGR's top finisher at the Tricky Triangle. Matt Kenseth finished 10th, Denny Hamlin 12th and Daniel Suarez 15th. Like Busch, the other three Gibbs' drivers still are searching for their first win of 2017.
ROOKIE RISING: Blaney wasn't the only young driver to score a career-high finish Sunday. Rookie Erik Jones, who turned 21 on May 30, earned the first top-five finish of his young career, taking third in another strong showing for Furniture Row. Jones' teammate Truex finished sixth for his 10th top-10 this year to retain the points lead. Jones also set a new high with 20 laps led and moved up two spots in the points to 16th.
"It feels really good to get a top-five," Jones said, "but man, when your'e that close and you're seeing them battle for the win and you're right there trying to pounce and make a move, it defintely makes you eager to up there and try to get it. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come."
Follow Horrow on Twitter @EllenJHorrow
PHOTOS: 2017 MONSTER ENERGY NASCAR CUP SERIES SCHEDULE