Sweet Pocono sweep for Junior
LONG POND, Pa. -- Maybe this really is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s year.
It certainly was at Pocono Raceway, as the most popular driver in NASCAR completed the Pennsylvania sweep by winning the GoBowling.com 400 on Sunday, frantically holding off the torn-up car of Kevin Harvick over the final three laps of a late restart.
"With Kevin, I'm racing one of the best," Earnhardt said. "That guy is going to get everything he can out of his car. I was anticipating him being right there on the inside going into [Turn 1]. I was just going to have to really get brave and drive it down in there and pray for it to stick.
"I drove it in there and we were able to clear him somehow. He had a strong car, though. I was overdriving mine terribly those last few laps and not getting enough speed out of my car, but we just had the dirty air to keep him behind us. We were good in the tunnel [Turn 2 and in Turn 3], but I was burying it into [Turn 1] way too deep and he was gaining on me there."
A strategy call -- the race revolved around numerous strategies playing out across the field -- from crew chief Steve Letarte made the difference for Earnhardt.
Letarte called him in on Lap 121 after a 13-car pileup that scrambled the race on Lap 118. A quick in-and-out and Earnhardt had the track position to get near the lead. He didn't take the lead for the first time until 14 laps to go, but he never trailed again.
"I'm in the car, I can't even figure out what is going on," Earnhardt said. "I just trust what [Letarte] does, decisions he makes.
"It started to make sense. A lot of these racetracks with the tires the way they are you've got to minimize the time you are on pit road during the race. That is what he was trying to do. We come down pit road [and] just needed a splash of fuel. A lot of guys needed to fill up their tanks. We were just able to leapfrog them. Just proud of the whole team.
"As good as Steve is and as great of a crew chief as he is, the whole team is that deep. Everybody has got a great personality, everybody is an expert at what they are doing and everybody does a great job at it. I'm real lucky to be a part of it. I can't thank these guys enough. They have really brought my career around and it is fun to be a part of this."
Harvick guaranteed himself a spot in the Chase with the second-place finish after an adventurous day that saw him caught for speeding on pit road before he acquired some visible left-side damage after largely avoiding the 13-car pileup.
"It wasn't exactly how you would lay it out on a piece of paper, for sure," he said. "We had a really fast car in clean air, a really loose car in traffic, and then we kind of got behind when I got the speeding penalty. I was making sure I didn't hit the 11 [Denny Hamlin during the wreck] and I looked down and I was way above where I needed to be on speed. But we were able to somewhat dodge that wreck.
"There was a huge drain on the back of the straightaway on the middle of the asphalt, and ran through, and it bounced us up in the wall as we were trying to go through the wreck on the straightaway back there.
"It wasn't too bad of damage. ... So it was fun. Car wasn't obviously quite as good after we wrecked it, but still they did a great job fixing it."
Harvick said he needed Earnhardt to make a mistake on that final restart to have a chance to win. Earnhardt stayed clean and sailed away to his third victory of the season in the No. 88 Chevrolet.
"I caught a good draft off of [Turn 3], the first lap on the restart, and was able to drive into [Turn 1] with him," Harvick said. "And he kind of got up the racetrack and I just needed -- if I could get beside him going into [Turn 1], I thought I could have a chance. He was a little bit better than I was in Turn 3 and just had to kind of maintain there to just stay close. But I was going to need him to slip up in Turn 1 and try to get position in Turn 2."
Earnhardt's three wins so far make this his best season since he won six times in 2004. But he faded to fifth in the standings down the stretch in the first season NASCAR used the Chase. However, the Chase rules have changed dramatically since then, when consecutive 33rd-place finishes at Martinsville and Atlanta killed his chances. A win in each of the first three three-race segments of this year's Chase means a driver advances to the next as the field starts at 16, narrows to 12, then eight and then four. And with the way he's running, it's not unreasonable to think a hot streak could keep him in contention when the final four vie for the title at Homestead.
Joey Logano, who led 30 laps early in the race, finished third, and with two victories so far this season likes his chances.
"We're in the hunt," he said. "I feel like our cars are definitely where they need to be. "
With the Chase assured and two victories so far, Harvick says what his team learned at Pocono that could pay off in the last 10 weeks of the season is simple.
"I have much faster cars than I have talent at Pocono," Harvick said. "So I'm really glad we brought fast cars to the track."
What Earnhardt's team can take away from Pocono is being in playoff form with five races to go until the Chase starts.
"Well I'd like to take credit, but it's a whole group effort," Letarte said. "The engineers up here [on the pit box], Damien [Dixon] and Kevin [Meendering] really helped me with some good decisions, they noticed earlier a couple of guys did it. We just managed it well.
"Drove some good laps at the end and we will call it a winner."