Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran into the media center, jumping up to the podium like a four-year-old kid in a candy store. “I’m not gonna run,” quipped crew chief Steve Letarte, but the driver ignored him, jumping up center stage to sit at the same podium where victory tasted so sweet two months earlier. A horde of fans sat pinned to the glass, trying to figure out every word of every answer during a 50-minute press conference where it felt like the participants, including some special moments for a Make-A-Wish kid named Chris, were willing to sit and talk 500 minutes more.
It’s a World Tour touching everyone in NASCAR, this special Earnhardt Renaissance, even though his rise back to prominence isn’t quite saving the sport. At age 39, even the best tweets don’t quite grab America like they used to, rekindling the fire for fans lost, but that shouldn’t take away for a minute this “aura” surrounding the No. 88 car. Earnhardt shrugged it off when asked if this season felt “magical,” but the reality is that owning three race victories and on a ticking clock with current crew chief Steve Letarte, there’s a strong feeling within this group that they’re in position to get the job done now. Yes, new crew chief Greg Ives will be welcome in 2015 when Letarte heads to the broadcast booth, but the chemistry within the whole team might never be better than it is right this very second.
“I’ve never been as close to my team, the relationships that me and Steve and (crew members) Jason and Kevin and all the guys on the team have, Adam, everybody,” said Earnhardt, who also thanked team owner Rick Hendrick seemingly 1,000 times on the phone in Victory Lane. “My personal life’s great. I’ve never had the relationships work this well.
“I was really close to the guys on the 8 team. Obviously, a lot of those guys are family. I still have great relationships with them. But I think I’m smarter about my friendships now, you know. When I was younger, it was more about, how can this help me … I was not as concerned about helping them and being their friend as I was about them being my friend. So I think I’m better at being a friend these days.”
Earnhardt’s also better, at, well, everything. Keeping his mouth shut when frustrated inside the car so Letarte can simply lead instead of shutting down the criticism. Spending time at the Hendrick shop with his team to the point he took them for a paintball excursion on Saturday after practice. Being more open than ever, with everyone from his teammates to his girlfriend, Amy Reimann, to even a media group where he’s never been completely closed off. (Sunday’s revelation? Earnhardt thought Hendrick had the right to fire him mid-contract a few years back when the results were so terrible because things “just weren’t working out.”)
Most importantly, NASCAR’s most popular driver feels a sense of loyalty to those around him now that simply drives him to be better. A man who has seen so much — the lows of losing a father and the grief of losing a family heirloom (DEI) — has risen to a level where his confidence knows no bounds.
For years, those inside the sport wondered if Earnhardt could get to this level of happiness again. The fact he’s there, spreading joy for all the world to see, is a feel-good story even if millions of causal fans aren’t bothering to notice.
Two Pocono victories take up only so much room on the shelf. The momentum produced by them? You can’t find enough space to put it inside Earnhardt’s head.
“Through the Gears” we go after an eventful race at Pocono …
FIRST GEAR: Big week for Earnhardt culminates in big sweep
It was Jeff Gordon, not Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had the fastest car on long runs Sunday. Gordon led a race-high 63 laps and would have run away with it had the cautions not fallen just right for Earnhardt and Co. to play catch-up. But after a multi-car wreck on lap 117 that changed everything (more on that in a moment), crew chief Steve Letarte figured a little strategy in the form of a fuel-only final stop could propel the No. 88 ahead of the pack.
“That pit strategy,” Letarte said. “(Engineer) Kevin (Meendering) and I argued about it for three or four laps, under caution, what we needed to do. And we drew it out on a piece of paper — we had the times, the plan, the this, the that — and when we left pit road we had it like to the tenth of a second and that was that moment in time that, man, we might have somewhat of a clue what we’re doing. And it was awesome.”
Earnhardt’s stop pushed him out ahead of Gordon and in position to quickly dispose of Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick — drivers that tried to simply stay out and stretch mileage after a series of late cautions bunched up the field. While the No. 24 car struggled to get up to speed in traffic, Earnhardt took control and held off Harvick when he found an extra ounce of speed inside the No. 4 during the final few laps.
“That was mano a mano, guy versus guy,” Earnhardt said. “He’s going to be brave and I got to be brave.”
In the past, Harvick would have honestly gotten the upper hand. Just not this year, Earnhardt’s first with three-plus victories since 2004 and only the third time in his 15-year career he’s totaled that high. Sunday was also his first sweep of both races at a track during the same season since 2002 (Talladega).
Can we take the next step and say Earnhardt is a title contender? Teammates Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, along with perhaps Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowsk and Joey Loganowill have a say about that when all’s said and done. But with a series-best 10 top-5 finishes, Earnhardt is flexing some consistency muscle that should get him in solid position to make the Final Four at Homestead. In the first year of this crazy format, it’s definitely the best opportunity for Earnhardt to hit paydirt and cash in.
SECOND GEAR: The “Big One” … at Pocono?
Typically, a 13-car wreck is reserved for the restrictor plate chaos of Daytona and Talladega. Denny Hamlin had other plans, though, as a bobble off Turn 1 caused Brian Vickers to check up shortly after a double-file restart in a move that spun his No. 55 and wiped out a quarter of the field.
“The 15 (Clint Bowyer) was right on my door and it sucked me around,” said Hamlin, adding to a tumultuous week where a P5 penalty for infractions at Indy cost him 75 points, the team a hefty fine and six-week suspensions for both car and crew chief. “I was just hanging on at that point and I think it was mayhem from everyone checking up from behind.”
Vickers’ bobble left nowhere to go for “bubble” Chase contenders like Paul Menard and Tony Stewart, who wound up on top of each other after the wreck. (Stewart joked, referring to a previous crash; “I’m always on top of Paul Menard … Car wise! Car wise!”) Vickers, Matt Kenseth and AJ Allmendingerwere also among those who lost valuable points.
If anything, the incident clarified who’s left in position to make the Chase through points. Greg Biffle, who avoided it, ran fifth, a strong run to move into the final “bubble” spot by just one point over Kasey Kahne. Rookie Austin Dillon sits two points back, while fellow rookie Kyle Larson sits five points ahead of Biffle. If no other drivers break into the win column down the stretch, those four will be battling for the final two spots while winless Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyerappear far enough ahead of the pack that they’re safe.
What about Menard, Stewart, Vickers and Allmendinger? They join Jamie McMurray in a clear strategy over the final five weeks: Win. That’s it; making the Chase on points just isn’t in the cards, especially if Marcos Ambrosetakes Watkins Glen and further tightens the window of “points opportunity.” That could lead to some wild racing up ahead, especially with Stewart’s strength at upcoming tracks and how well Vickers has run at Bristol. Buckle up, race fans; August is about to get pretty awesome on-track.
THIRD GEAR: Jimmie Johnson’s battle with Goodyear
It’s impossible to say Jimmie Johnsonand the No. 48 team are in trouble, despite chalking up their third DNF in four races on Sunday. They’ve stumbled into the Chase every which way, either on top or completely off their game, only to turn around and slaughter the field. No one dares hop off the Johnson-Knaus bandwagon until there’s compelling evidence to do so.
But one running theme that is interesting is Johnson’s propensity for tire failures. He had at least one at Pocono, an issue the driver claimed came from hitting the outside wall before a second hard hit ended his day on lap 112. Finishing 39th, it’s his seventh in-race tire failure of 2014, a much higher rate than other top-tier teams. It makes you wonder if Knaus is going way too edgy with air pressure. If he does that during the Chase, ignoring recommendations, one flat Goodyear could flatten Johnson’s hopes for title seven.
Of course, it could just be aggressive testing so the No. 48 doesn’t go overboard come September. I’ll keep my vote in that column, for now regardless of what’s said out of that camp.
FOURTH GEAR: Kevin Harvick scrambles to success
As mentioned plenty in this column in the past, mistakes within Kevin Harvick’s No. 4 team have led to heavy frustration over the summer. Winless since the spring, several races were simply thrown away through pit road mistakes or driving boo-boos that wiped top 5s — even wins — off the table. So a second place Sunday was critical, not just to build momentum but for the team to prove they could rebound from adversity instead of wilting when the going got tough.
“I think today was very important,” Harvick told me Sunday, after a pit road speeding penalty put the team behind before his involvement in the lap 117 wreck left the car in need of repair. “That’s what we talked about as we came back from the break was just scrambling, being able to scramble and get a finish of some sort to get something out of a day.
“We didn’t have the car that we wanted. I felt like we had a top-three car today. We were going to need track position and things were not really going well. They were able to fix the car after we wrecked it. That’s what you’re going to have to do the last 10 weeks and today, we were able to accomplish that. Hopefully, this is a good sign of things to come.”
For a new team where the consensus has been “fastest car on track” most of the season, it’s runs like these that will make believers they’ll go deep into the Chase.
Different strokes for different folks: it’s a quote that can apply to racetracks, as well. There were eight green-flag lead changes in the first 80 laps at Indy, and people were calling for stock cars to exit, stage right. There were eight lead changes in the first 80 laps at Pocono and fans thought it was one of the better races there in several years. … Danica Patrick said, midway through the race on the radio, that her car was so bad and she “didn’t know why.” Um, maybe that’s because you blew a tire and slammed the wall several laps earlier? It was a miracle her No. 10 didn’t wind up on the back of a wrecker; eventually, they sent it to the garage for repairs, but a promising 10th-place qualifying effort wilted into a 3oth-place result, four laps off the pace. … It was a disappointing day for two favorites. Rookie Kyle Larson won the pole, but never led a lap en route to a ho-hum 11th-place finish. Brad Keselowski, who dominated in June, never got out front either, pulling a “save of the year” not to wreck in the first few laps and then got involved in that multi-car wreck. He wound up 23rd. … A race of survival benefited the underdogs, as rookie Justin Allgaier (16th) and veteran David Gilliland (17th) posted season-best results. David Ragan (19th), Gilliland’s teammate, also made it two cars in the top 20 for under-funded Front Row Motorsports.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.