Earlier this week Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finally learned the identity of his new crew chief in 2015, but in the meantime he isn’t ready to close his storybook relationship with current crew chief Steve Letarte quite yet.
Employing a well-conceived fuel strategy by Letarte, Earnhardt was able to hold off Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps to go to win the GoBowling.com 400.
Earnhardt’s season sweep at Pocono is the first since Denny Hamlin accomplished the feat in 2006. It was also Earnhardt’s first sweep since the 2002 season, when he captured victories at both races at Talladega.
Earnhardt said before the race his No. 88 Chevrolet was “better” than his winner in June – and in victory lane he gave all the credit to Letarte.
“It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do to take those gambles,” Earnhardt said of Letarte’s call. “Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t.
“We had a fast car all day. Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end. I don’t know if anyone knew what was going on there, but it was pretty awesome.”
Earnhardt’s third win of 2014 is his best in a season since he won six times in 2004. The win on Sunday also marked Hendrick Motorsports’ fifth consecutive win at Pocono.
Second-place finisher Harvick had a day that truly fits the definition of a roller coaster. After running in the top 10 for much of the afternoon, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver was busted on pit road for speeding, which led to him being involved in the 13-car accident on lap 118.
However, by use of good pit strategy by crew chief Rodney Childers, Harvick was able to to find his way back at the front of the field and was able to put some pressure on Earnhardt in the closing laps, but was ultimately unable to make a move, leaving him to settle for second.
“This hasn’t been one of my better race tracks and the cars have been fast both races here,” Harvick said afterward. “Today we were able to capitalize on it and get a good finish.”
Joey Logano finished third, Clint Bowyer fourth and Greg Biffle fifth.
Jeff Gordon, who led a race-high 63 laps, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and Kasey Kahne rounded out the top 10.
The game-changing moment of the race came on lap 118, when Hamlin got loose off the exit of turn two, setting off a wild 13-car pileup that involved several drivers who were battling for all-important points heading the stretch run toward the Chase. Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers and Paul Menard were among those involved.
“I was coming out of turn two and [the] 11 car [Hamlin] spun in front of us and I was trying to avoid him and the car got out from under me,” Vickers said. “I don’t know if someone got into me or not. One thing led to another trying to avoid the 11 and then I ended up in the wall. It’s a shame.”
Stewart had the craziest ride of all, ending up on the hood of Menard’s No. 27 Chevrolet.
“It started so far in front of us coming off (turn two) we couldn’t see it,” Stewart said. “Somebody got sideways and started wrecking in front us and we got caught in it. We ended up on top of Paul Menard’s hood so, which is not where we wanted to end up by any means.”
Tire failures in a race happen for all, but for Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team they are becoming an epidemic.
The six-time champion experienced another frustrating day at Pocono on Sunday. The troubles started early when on lap nine, Johnson had a right front tire go soft, causing the side of Johnson’s car to brush the wall. After making a pit stop, he furiously rallied to make it back inside the top 5 before another blown right front tire ended his day in 39th.
“It wasn’t the best weekend but we still gave ourselves a chance at a win, if not a top 5, today and came up a little short,” Johnson said.
Johnson wasn’t the only one that had his day end prematurely. Kyle Busch‘s day ended before it even had a chance to get going when, on lap 23, the engine gave out on his No. 18 Toyota, leaving him to settle for a 42nd-place finish.
All told, there were 15 lead changes among 10 different drivers, and eight cautions for 35 laps slowed the race pace to 127.411 mph.
Next week the Sprint Cup Series heads to the beautiful Finger Lakes section of New York and Watkins Glen International for the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen. Green flag is scheduled for 1:19 p.m. ET
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