LONG POND, PENNSYLVANIA – Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in position to pounce on Sunday, punching his ticket to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup by winning his second race this season and his first-ever at Pocono Raceway.
It took a little racing luck.
Runner-up Brad Keselowski was terrific in clean air. What he lacked was a clean grille.
On Sunday, when Keselowski’s car began to overheat due to a piece of trash on his front end, Earnhardt roared by, becoming the fourth consecutive Hendrick Motorsports driver to put a Chevrolet in Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway.
“Brad had the better car; he had me beat,” said Earnhardt, who has known his share of late-race misfortune. Take the third race of the season at Las Vegas, when he ran out of gas on the final lap, enabling Keselowski to win.
“I’ve lost some in some strange ways, so it feels good to win one like that,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt’s triumph in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Pocono 400 gave him two victories this season, his first multiple- win campaign since 2004 when he won six times. He has seen and appreciated the gradual-but-steady strides his team has made.
“The difference between running fourth at the end of this race and running second is a very small thing,” said Earnhardt, praising the effort of his crew chief Steve Letarte in the process. “In years past, it was someone else seizing the opportunity. We’d be third or fourth, watching it happen.
“Each year we’ve seen a progression of performance. What I’m seeing us do and how I’m seeing us run makes a lot of sense to me. We’ve been fast every week. We started [to improve] toward the middle of last year. We haven’t peaked, but we’re certainly doing some of our best work right now.”
Keselowski led 95 of Sunday’s 160 laps and led Earnhardt by more than one second when his engine temperature forced him to take decisive action with five laps to go. Keselowski tucked in behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick, hoping to draw the debris off his grille.
“I felt really bad for Brad to see him in a situation to be that desperate,” Earnhardt said. “He’s a good friend … he had it won. We weren’t going to get to him. I could not believe he was going to do that when I saw him go up the race track behind the No. 10 (Patrick's car). His temperature had to be super-hot for him to do that.”
Keselowski said he was desperate and felt he had no choice.
“There was debris on the grille, so I had to do something,” Keselowski said. “[Maybe] I should have just ran it to see if it would have blown off … but I had to make some kind of move or the car wasn’t going to make it. The car was starting to blow up. It was going to break or I was going to get passed because we were really down on power in the straightaway.
“I took a shot to clear it off and not lose time, but I misjudged it. [The move] made enough difference for me to lose the lead in the process. When I got down in the corner and the car finally got sideways, I realized I’d made a mistake.”
In 28 previous Sprint Cup starts at Pocono, Earnhardt had managed seven top-five finishes including a pair of secondplace finishes despite what he thought were some excellent cars.
“We’ve had so many opportunities slip away,” he said. “We’ve been so close. So it feels so good to get into Victory Lane here. I used to come here as a kid because it was a summer race. I just always wanted to win at this place. We’ve had some good cars here, so it feels good to finish the deal.”
Kurt Busch finished third, polesitter Denny Hamlin fourth and rookie Kyle Larson took fifth. Hendrick driver Jimmie Johnson, winner of the previous two Sprint Cup races, started 20th, overcame a pit road collision with Marcos Ambrose that dropped him as far back as 31st, and wound up sixth.
Stewart takes blame for late-race penalty
As laps clicked down in Sunday's Pocono 400, Stewart- Haas Racing seemed primed for a celebration, running 1-2- 3 at Pocono Raceway.
Tony Stewart was leading teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch with 45 laps remaining when Harvick was forced to pit with a left front tire going down.
Then Stewart was penalized for speeding on pit road. Suddenly, Busch, who also pitted, was back to 19th, Stewart was relegated to the tail end of the lead lap in 31st and Harvick was a lap down in 32nd.
"One hundred percent driver error,” said Stewart of his pit road snafu. “I gave my guys grief last week with a sixth-place run when I thought we should have run in the top three. Then I threw it away this week.”
"It’s just a shame,” said Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas. “We had a strong weekend as far as speed. It was encouraging. We had a good day going. It just hasn’t been our year so far.”
When Stewart took the lead from Brad Keselowski on Lap 76, it marked only the second time this season that the threetime NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion had led a race. He led 74 laps from the pole at Texas Motor Speedway and led 24 at Pocono. Busch, who led five laps, overcame early issues with his transmission slipping out of fourth gear and ended up with a third-place finish.
“At one point, it was great to see Tony leading, Harvick second and we were third,” he said. “That’s what we wanted to see with our Stewart-Haas Chevys up front. This is the point in the season where each [team] starts to build its own identity. Our team, as young as we are, this is the type of finish that will build the confidence.”
Stewart clawed his way back to 13th, one spot ahead of Harvick, who has been the fastest driver in both practice sessions on Saturday. SHR driver Danica Patrick also had a decent race going. Although off pit cycle, she was second with 25 laps to go only to see her afternoon end in a crash (after a tire problem) with 23 laps left and a 37th-place finish.