July 27, 2018
This weekend marks an odd anniversary at Pocono Raceway. 15 years ago, the ARCA Series held two races on consecutive days at the 2.5 mile Pennsylvania track. While IndyCar and NASCAR’s European Series occasionally run doubleheader races, Pocono in 2003 was a very race time that an American stock car series ran back-to-back.
Oddly enough, the 2003 ARCA season had races on consecutive days twice. The Thursday night, May 22nd race at Charlotte was delayed by rain until Friday morning at 11 a.m. After winning at Charlotte, Frank Kimmel and the rest of the ARCA tour drove up to Berlin Raceway in Michigan for a Saturday night race on the .438 mile short track. Kimmel won again, scoring two ARCA wins on back-to-back days.
Just two weeks later, rain again plagued the ARCA series as they reached Pocono. As a Cup series rookie, Casey Mears entered the race to gain experience on the Tricky Triangle. Driving a Ganassi Dodge, Mears was fastest in every practice and broke the track record in qualifying. But a washout on race day delayed the event to Friday July 25th, rescheduled for one day before the second scheduled race there.
Because of the back-to-back races in late-July, Giant, a Pennsylvania supermarket, offered a $25,000 bonus if a driver could win both. The winner would get $12,500 and the other half would go to the Children’s Miracle Network.
The June rain-out created a confusing schedule one month later. Because the lineup for the first race was set in June, some cars would race in both and some would only race in one. Among those running only one was 18 year-old Kyle Busch, who wasn’t entered back in June. In Thursday’s qualifying session for the Saturday race, Busch’s Hendrick Motorsports Chevy broke the track record and won the pole at a speed of 170.849 mph. Shockingly, Busch was over a second faster than second-place qualifier, Casey Mears. When Winston Cup qualifying was held the following day, Ryan Newman’s pole time was also two tenths of a second slower than Busch’s ARCA time.
Friday’s rescheduled Giant 200 was held immediately following Cup qualifying. After qualifying 10th in Winston Cup, Casey Mears dominated the ARCA race by leading 75 of 80 laps and cruised to an easy win.
The next day’s race was more competitive, made even closer by the amount of Cup teams that entered the race. In addition to Busch and Mears driving for Hendrick and Ganassi, Petty Enterprises entered a car for Christian Fittipaldi and Morgan-McClure entered a car for David Reutimann. It was no surprise that those four teams took the first four starting positions.
When the second race went green on Saturday, Busch led the first 19 laps. Mears held the lead for the next 10 before Busch took it back. Overall, the young Hendrick driver led 33 laps before his race ended abruptly on lap 57.
At the end of frontstretch, Busch was making his way back toward the lead when he collided with veteran-driver, Ron Cox. Busch spun, hit the wall, and collected Tom Eriksen. His race ended on a tow truck.
Sports Illustrated reported that after the wreck, Busch walked back to the pits, passed Jeff Gordon’s crew chief Robbie Loomis, and then started jogging toward Cox’s pit to voice his displeasure with the 37 year-old’s crew chief. Seeing a problem brewing, Loomis chased down Busch, “wrapped his arms around him” and told him to “let it go.”
“Ron Cox wrecked me for no reason,” Busch said. “I had the fastest car on the track, and he couldn’t deal with it. But someday I’ll be up in Winston Cup, and he’ll still be a nobody.”
With Busch out of the race, the event came down to a battle between Mears and David Reutimann. On the final lap, Reutimann tried to sneak inside of Mears, but couldn’t make the pass. Mears won for the second time in 24 hours and claimed the $25,000 Giant bonus.
All the experience Mears gained running ARCA helped him in the Cup race on Sunday. He led 8 laps that day, the first time he led a Cup event under green, but crashed out with 40 laps to go. At the track one year later, Mears won the first pole of his Cup Series career. And in all the years since, the ARCA series has never again run two races on consecutive days.