Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not have the fastest car at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, but NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver had strategy, determination and a little bit of luck on his side. And Earnhardt parlayed those attributes into his second win of the season in the Pocono 400.
The situation was all-too-familiar for the 2014 Daytona 500 champion. In his six-plus year association with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt has scored 16 runner-up finishes to a paltry four victories. As the laps wound down at Pocono, it appeared he would have to settle for yet another second-place showing. However, when leader Brad Keselowski picked up a piece of trash on the grille of his Ford — causing it to overheat — Earnhardt suddenly found himself in a position to buck the tendency of a career that has found him to be a consistent performer, not a prolific winner.
Keselowski attempted to unhinge the debris by momentarily drafting behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick. When he did so, his momentum slowed and Earnhardt blew past on the inside. In clean air, the No. 88 car led the final five laps en route to the driver’s 21st career Sprint Cup victory.
“I don’t know what his (engine) temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that,” Earnhardt said. “I knew right then when he did that, he was so slow, I thought we were going to pass him — we’re going to take the lead, we’re going to have four laps to go, and if I just run tidy corners, he would have trouble with the dirty air and wouldn’t be able to get to us.”
In hindsight, Keselowski’s radical move may have not been needed. The engine in his No. 2 Ford lasted the distance.
“It was definitely a mistake because the engine made it, but it probably shouldn’t have,” Keselowski said. “It was one of those deals, I think I was going to get passed because I was really down on power down the straightaway. I don’t know — it’s hard to say.”
Earnhardt’s win was notable in that it marked the first time since the 2004 season, when he recorded six victories, that Earnhardt has notched multiple wins in one season. The performance has the 16-year veteran — a driver historically at the mercy of the ebbs and flows that momentum brings — brimming with confidence.
“I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling,” said Earnhardt, who sits third in the point standings and a lock for NASCAR’s Chase. “We’re doing some of our best work, certainly, right now. We should — we have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve’s (crew chief Steve Letarte) last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.
“So that can be dangerous for everybody else if we win to get better. We’re still not the best team — we can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve. But we’re doing some great work, and I feel like what we do is really dependable. I think our team is very dependable and mistake free, so hopefully we can maintain that.”
The circuit visits a track where the performance can be maintained — Michigan International Speedway — where Earnhardt recorded the last two wins of his career prior to the 2014 season. Back-to-back victories are a lot to ask out of any team in the Sprint Cup garage, and last year’s 37th- and 36th-place showings for Earnhardt at the 2-mile track don’t paint a rosy picture. Still, stopping at a facility where he has experienced success is reason for optimism, right?
“A win gives you a lot of confidence, but you know how difficult those are to come by and how competitive this garage is,” Earnhardt admitted. “But man, when you win two in a row ... that sets you apart a bit from your competition. That would be a great thing for us.”
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.