LONG POND, Pa. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. realized that it took a bit of luck for him to win at Pocono Raceway in June. But he knew his team was firing on all cylinders Sunday when he completed the season sweep.
Benefitting from impeccable pit strategy, Earnhardt led the final 14 laps and a car with the performance to hold off Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps to go to ring up his third victory of the 2014 season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400.
“It wasn’t about luck this time,” said Earnhardt, who roared past Brad Keselowski in the June race after Keselowski caught a piece of trash in his grill and began to overheat.
Earnhardt credited crew chief Steve Letarte and his team for not resting on their laurels at Pocono.
“We were determined to go home from the last win and improve the car,” Earnhardt said. “Steve and the guys studied and improved the setup. We had a little luck on the win the last time with Keselowski having the debris and we wanted to be in the driver’s seat this go-round with a faster car.”
Letarte said the homework paid off in a faster Chevrolet.
“I feel we unloaded a better car for the second Pocono than we did the first Pocono,” he said. “You cannot ever assume a winning car is going to be good enough the next week. While we were excited to win (in June) and we’ll take it, there was room for improvement, so we worked very hard between that race and this race.”
The result was Earnhardt’s second season sweep of his career (Talladega 2002). He also became the first driver to sweep at Pocono since Denny Hamlin in 2006.
Almost from the outset, Sunday’s 400-miler was a battle of pit strategies regarding fuel strategy and tires. Throw in a 13-car wreck that took much of the field out of contention for the final 34 laps and crew chiefs had their hands full.
Letarte made the ultimate decision to take four fresh tires with 39 laps to go, then bring Earnhardt back for a splash of gas 10 laps later.
“All we needed to get there was a gallon or two while the rest of the guys in front of us needed four tires and a full tank,” Earnhardt said. “We were on pit road for two seconds in the box and they were in their pit stalls for 12-14 seconds. We were able to leapfrog those guys. We weren’t technically leading the race when the (next) caution came out, but we were ahead of those guys on where we needed to be.
“It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do and take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. I’ve got a lot of faith in Steve and the strategy he used today gave us the opportunity to get by some guys that we probably weren’t going to pass on the race track.”
It was the fifth consecutive Sprint Cup victory at Pocono for Hendrick Motorsports, which also had Jeff Gordon in contention for much of the race.
Gordon, a six-time winner at Pocono, led a race-high 63 laps. He also became the first driver to lead 1,000 laps at Pocono and passed the 24,000 mark in career laps led in Sprint Cup competition.
Joey Logano, who led the first 30 laps, finished third ahead of Clint Bowyer and Greg Biffle.
Saving fuel, Biffle found himself with the lead after AJ Allmendinger’s crash brought out a caution with 21 laps left. But Biffle couldn’t hold off Earnhardt, who took command with 14 laps to go.
“I was heartbroken when that caution came out,” said Biffle, who thought strategy had given him a fighting chance. “That just killed our day. We had a 20th-place car but got track position and drove our butt off. (If the race stayed green) it was going to be ‘Mickey Mouse’ — who would run out of fuel — unless those guys could catch us.”
Earnhardt had opened a 2.7-second lead on Harvick when Kurt Busch hit the wall, bringing out another caution that created the final 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 knew I was just going to have to really get brave, drive it down in there and pray for it to stick.”
Harvick, who overcame a pit road speed penalty on Lap 96 and found himself 14th after driving over a storm drain in avoiding major damage during the 13-car melee, gave it all he could.
“I timed that last (restart) pretty good,” Harvick said. “But I couldn’t turn into the corner like I needed to to stay beside him. I thought if I could get beside him going into (Turn) 1 I’d have a chance, but he was a little better than I was in Turn 3.”
On his way to his Victory Lane celebration, Earnhardt took a phone call from team owner Rick Hendrick.
“I just thanked him for how much he changed my life and how he has supported me,” Earnhardt said. “I wanted to thank him and make sure he understood how much I appreciated him. I wanted him to know how much it meant to me that I got the chance to drive this car and get a win today.”