Can a winning Dale Earnhardt Jr. turn NASCAR's tide?

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Through the Gears: Four things we learned at Pocono Raceway

Race reaction from NASCAR's Sprint Cup race in Pocono where Dale Earnhardt Jr. recorded his second win of the 2014 season.

Let’s turn back the clock to 2004. Kyle Larson was adjusting to middle school, simply make it through a daily class routine. People knew Bob Keselowski, Brad’s father, as a former NASCAR driver and Truck Series owner but absolutely nothing about his son. Jimmie Johnson had yet to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title, while Jeff Gordon was king of the NASCAR hierarchy. Meanwhile, Mark Martin and Viagra remained the most amusing sponsor pairing in sports.

 

That year, NASCAR also had a popular Daytona 500 winner in Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was driving for the team his father built, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Winning six races that season, he came within a curse word at Talladega (and perhaps an ill-fated Atlanta incident) from winning the title he now craves. That first year of the Chase, perhaps its best, also was at the height of NASCAR’s popularity, as the 30-year-old son of a legend popped up on MTV’s Cribs and managed success with the mantra of carrying the sport’s “next generation” of fans onward and upward.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.

 

That brings us to 2014, the modern day of NASCAR uncertainty where Earnhardt, once again, has put himself on the pedestal of a multi-win season. Execs down in Daytona have again combined with fans, drivers and teams to mark Junior as the “savior” who can bring the sport back into mainstream popularity. Barring some sort of computer-geek bid by Josh Wise, Reddit and Dogecoin, Earnhardt will wind up the sport’s Most Popular Driver for a 12th consecutive year.

 

But does he really have the power to turn around the sport’s fortunes? Turning 40 this year, Earnhardt’s Twitter feed still lags behind the numbers of Danica Patrick, who has half the on-track results but received a larger ovation during Sunday’s driver introductions. The NASCAR needle has consistently moved downward despite his Daytona 500 win that was supposed to spark renewed interest in the sport. Junior remains one of the sport’s most engaging interviews, a connection to a past longtime fans hunger for. But the 18-year-old new ones were in kindergarten when Dale Earnhardt Sr. died. They know little — aside from what can viewed on YouTube — of that No. 3 team, its driver’s aggression and how that transformed a sport.

 

There’s no question Earnhardt Sr.’s son, while enjoying a career renaissance and legitimate title bid, is good for the sport. But at this point for those placing unrealistic expectations, there is no excuse. Junior is successful, he’s running up front and he’s killing it in front of the media every week. The stats say NASCAR’s most popular driver should be driving fans back into the seats the way Tiger Woods does for golf.

 

So if the word “savior” is real, if Earnhardt really has that type of power, the stands at Michigan and beyond better start selling out.

 

 

FIRST GEAR: What goes around comes around?

It seems the key moment at Pocono was a “get even” deal for Earnahrdt after a failed fuel-mileage gamble at Las Vegas. That left him settling for second in that March race while Brad Keselowski sped past to take the victory. At Pocono, it was Keselwoski first, Earnhardt second — and in position to finish that way — until the leader made an uncharacteristic mistake.

 

The No. 2 car, dominant on the day with 95 of 160 laps led, wound up with a piece of debris on the grille. Concerned about the engine’s soaring temperatures, Keselowski panicked, thinking that it would blow and went out of his way to slide behind the slower car of Danica Patrick in hopes the turbulent air would dislodge the piece of paper. But Patrick, damaged from an earlier wreck, was running too slow of a pace and what happened next cost Keselowski the race.

 

“I could tell she was trying to let me go on the inside and I don't think she knew the situation I was in,” Keselowski said. “I was trying to follow her, and I was trying to follow her towards the top side and she just kept going higher and higher and higher until it sucked me in higher and higher. I just couldn't get out of the wake and lost my momentum. It's one of those things that happens.”

 

Keselowski’s loss was Earnhardt’s gain, as the driver of the No. 88 car seized his opportunity and took the lead. From there, clean air took control as Earnhardt happily took a second 2014 victory despite knowing he did not have the best car.

 

“I think we had a little luck on our side at the end,” said crew chief Steve Letarte, “But you have to put yourself in this position to have that luck fall your way.” 

 

Indeed. Earnhardt is running a level above what had been his norm at Hendrick and that’s left him ready to cash in on these opportunities once they come.

 

 

SECOND GEAR: Stewart-Haas 2014 theme: How to beat yourself.  

Prior to the race, Tony Stewart looked happier than he’d been all season, a tipoff to what should have been a breakout day for Stewart-Haas Racing. At one point, SHR cars ran 1-2-3, with Stewart leading a contingent that included Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch.

 

Only Busch, though, would finish in the top 3. Stewart suffered a mid-race speeding penalty, blowing four sections entering pit road while Harvick had a tire go flat for a second straight week. Both lost the crucial track position needed to contend for the win and never recovered, running 13th and 14th, respectively.

 

Even Busch, who had a potential winning car, saw his chances slip away after overshooting his pit under yellow. While third was a big step forward for the No. 41 team — it was its first top 5 since winning Martinsville in early spring — you have to wonder what might have been for the group that could have used that second “lock” to the Chase. 

 

Or maybe you don’t. The 2014 season, for this recently-expanded outfit, is clearly marked by the slogan “Beat yourself.” All year, Harvick’s had the fastest car to the point Earnhardt even labeled him the man to beat in a winning post-race presser. But the No. 4 car has stumbled badly with tire woes, pit stops and broken parts and sits 12th in points. Stewart, meanwhile, has made a few uncharacteristic mistakes on-track while struggling with feedback with new crew chief Chad Johnston. Busch has been … well, Busch, at times. And let’s not even mention the struggles of the fourth SHR team and Danica Patrick.

 

It’s four very different personalities, so “Type A” that most people thought the organization’s weakness would be Jerry Springer-like dysfunction in its Tuesday debriefs. Who thought the biggest problem would be the drivers individually making a number of self-induced mistakes?

 

 

THIRD GEAR: Pocono’s tricky triangle too tough?

Pocono’s crowd was healthy Sunday, a far cry from Dover a week ago and a feather in the cap to track president Brandon Igdalsky’s phenomenal marketing program. What makes the difference at Pocono, as opposed to other tracks, is the number of choices fans have for pre-race fun outside of the actual racing itself. The plan, according to those in the know, is to turn Pocono into more of an “entertainment facility” within five years: a central location for concerts, special events and other exciting options besides the main focus of racing.

 

That’s good, because the recent repave has faded into a dull NASCAR product the last two years. Denny Hamlin, who ran fourth, called the racing “uneventful” and several drivers complained of a pure inability to pass. Aerodynamics, which had taken a back seat for 2014, have appeared to be very much in play since Kansas, with track speed records weekly leaving drivers on the edge to the point side-by-side racing is a risk not worth taking.

 

“That's part of really all of racing,” said Keselowski, a “surrender” response that brought exactly no fans to the table. “Aerodynamics taking over motorsports — and we've all kind of learned to live around it and it makes the restarts so critical. But it's just kind of part of the deal.”

 

It’s too bad, because Pocono has done so much to modernize itself and relate to fans in the northeast. But until NASCAR follows suit with a package that allows for more passing and (gasp!) attrition to return to the fold, each race at Pocono will follow the same old formula: great restarts, then run-in-place until fuel mileage or a pit stop mistake decides things.

 

Thinkin' Out Loud: Breaking down the Pocono 400

 

 

FOURTH GEAR: The curious case of Kasey Kahne.

Kasey Kahne had a bizarre media session at Pocono Friday, getting so defensive about his season that I wrote in my notes: “General theme: I’m fine. Really.” Kahne was so concerned about repeating how well he’d handled a difficult 2014 campaign that, at times, it felt as if he was busy convincing himself.

 

Not that anyone could blame the poor guy for being frustrated. This year has seen bad luck moment after bad luck moment for the No. 5 car, despite the fact Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis still hit on setups that work. (See: Jimmie Johnson’s Charlotte victory, a direct result of utilizing some Kahne/Francis notes). No doubt, he’s well liked and still a talent loaded with potential. But with Chase Elliott waiting in the wings along with expiring sponsor contracts, there seems to be a greater sense of urgency getting this driver and team into the Chase. A recent Hendrick Motorsports test at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, in which all four team participated, seemed designed more to get Kahne in victory lane than help the organization as a whole.

 

But despite all the support, Kahne just can’t seem to get over the hump. His car was clearly fourth out of four HMS machines Sunday — uneventful until a Kyle Busch mistake pushed the No. 5 car hard into the wall and took everyone there out of their misery. It left a normally even-keeled Kahne frustrated enough to take a shot at Busch: “He was probably (ticked off) because his car was slow,” he said, marking the fourth incident where he’s gotten the short end of the stick with Busch in the last 16 months. “Once we hit, my car went hard right.”

 

Sounds like an apt description of Kahne’s season, just replace the word “right” with “down.” And while it’s nice to see him get emotional, the “Mark Martin” mentality here will make it unlikely at best that we’ll see payback to Busch at some point. Will that inability to get an extra “oomph” on the track — and off — from Kahne ultimately be what defines a career?

 

 

OVERDRIVE  

The spectacular rookie season of Kyle Larson sped right along at Pocono. He won the ARCA race, leading unchallenged for most of it on Saturday before using lessons learned to run fifth in the Cup event. But the biggest breakthrough of all? The freshman finally led his first laps of 2014, pacing the field for seven circuits during a cycle of green-flag stops. Despite sitting 10th in points, he hadn’t put the No. 42 out front for a race all year. …  A fire in Turn 3 (right), from firework shrapnel in the pre-race ceremony, caused the first of Pocono’s seven caution flags. Unusual? Hardly. Forces of nature are nothing new to the track, where a deer once ran across to interrupt proceedings several years ago. …  J.J. Yeley, who ran 38th, had a part break, causing a caution but came back to run at the finish, albeit three laps down. Why is that important? It’s the first time the new Xxxtreme Motorsports has done so in 11 Sprint Cup starts. 

 

 

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

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