LONG POND, Pa. — report by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Race Chaser Online — Tom Pennington/NASCAR via Getty Images photo — Dale Earnhardt Jr. may have only led once during Sunday afternoon’s Gobowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway, but he made sure he led when it counted.
The driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet SS completed a daring pass on Roush Fenway Racing’ s Greg Biffle with 14 laps to go and withstood a late-race caution and three-lap sprint to the finish for his third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series triumph in 2014 and second-straight Pocono victory.
“I can’t believe we swept Pocono,” said Earnhardt, who also won the Pocono 400 on June 8. “We definitely went home from the last race (at Pocono) and made our car better.”
“I was just trying to hold them (Harvick) off. They were faster,” Earnhardt added in reference to the final restart. “My car, I was over driving it and not rolling the center very good and Kevin was getting me in turns one and two. I just couldn’t back it down. I was way over driving the car.”
Earnhardt gave a lot of credit to his crew chief Steve Letarte for making the strategy call that got him near the front at the end of the race.
“We had a fast car all day,” Earnhardt said. “Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end. I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on, but that was pretty awesome. It takes a really, really smart guy to figure out what to do and take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t.”
Sunday’s victory by Earnhardt was the fifth-straight for Hendrick Motorsports at Pocono Raceway, and also allowed him to take over the top spot on the provisional Chase Grid from Brad Keselowski.
Sprint Cup rookie Kyle Larson was the driver who led the field to the green flag, but it was Team Penske’s Joey Logano who led the opening stint of the race, taking the lead from the low side and darting away to pace the opening 30 laps of the race despite two early cautions, including a hard lick by Danica Patrick into the turn 1 SAFER Barrier after she lost a tire early in the going. Following pit stops and a shuffle in the running order, Kurt Busch would take the lead for a short stint in his Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.
The dominant car on the day would make his presence known just after quarter-distance though, when Jeff Gordon took the lead for the first time on lap 44 and began to run away from the field, at one point holding a 2+ second lead on the field through multiple pit cycles, strategies and a caution on lap 52 when Kasey Kahne and Joe Nemechek got together, sending Nemechek into the wall and sparking a firestorm of comments over radio communication.
“I don’t know who that guy (Nemechek) is or what he was thinking,” a frustrated Kahne expressed to his team. “Tell that spotter (No.66) to park that (expletive).”
Gordon would lead a total of three times for 63 laps, including through two game-changing cautions that shook up the running order.
The first was at lap 113, when the No. 48 of six-time and defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson lost a second tire after having early-race tire issues that dropped Johnson a lap down in the first 20 laps. Johnson pounded the wall and was left with heavy right side damage which forced him out of the race following the incident. Johnson ultimately finished 39th.
The second caution was unexpected and shocking.
On lap 117, Denny Hamlin got loose coming off of turn 1 and bounced off the wall trying to correct his race car. Behind him, Brian Vickers, Matt Kenseth and others crashed trying to avoid the sideways No. 11 Toyota, sparking a 13-car pileup the likes of a Talladega “Big One” at the entrance to the Long Pond straightaway.
Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger, Paul Menard and several others were among those collected in the crash.
The crash required a lengthy clean up period as NASCAR cleared damaged cars from the track and several teams opted to pit for tires and gas. Some, like Earnhardt, chose to stay out with plans to pit just after the green flag waved again.
Once the green returned, that’s exactly what Earnhardt did. Steve Letarte called the No. 88 in for their final stop five laps after a lap 127 restart and guaranteed that his driver could make it to the end without stopping again. As drivers pitted, Greg Biffle assumed the lead before a caution with 21 laps to go when A.J. Allmendinger smacked the wall and allowed Earnhardt, Gordon and others to close the gap to the leaders, which included Biffle and Kevin Harvick.
On the restart at lap 144, Earnhardt took second from Harvick before setting his sight on Biffle and the race win. Three laps later, he surged to the inside going into turn 2 and set sail.
The battle wasn’t over however. As Earnhardt built a three-second advantage and Harvick bypassed Biffle for second, Kurt Busch lost a tire and smacked the wall twice, setting up the three lap dash to the finish with Harvick alongside Earnhardt. Though the Stewart-Haas driver gave it a valiant effort on slightly older tires, Harvick was no match for Junior and had to settle for second despite a charge in turn 2 on the final lap.
“This hasn’t been one of my best tracks,” Harvick said. “I just have to thank all of my guys on this Mobil 1 Chevy for putting us in position to at least have an opportunity to pull some strategy there.”
“I made a lot of mistakes today and they (the crew) made up for it with a fast race car,” Harvick added. “If it weren’t for (being involved in the Big One) and the damage we got there, I might have had a shot to catch him (Earnhardt).”
Joey Logano finished third, with Clint Bowyer and Biffle completing the top five. Jeff Gordon fell back late in the race during the pit stop exchanges and late restarts and finished sixth. Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Hamlin and Kahne rounded out the top 10.
Kyle Busch had an equally bad day to Jimmie Johnson’s. The M&Ms Toyota’s engine gave up the ghost at lap 23 and sent Busch to the garage area. He finished 42nd.
Jeff Gordon maintained his Sprint Cup Series regular season points lead, but saw it shrink slightly with his teammate Earnhardt’s victory. Gordon’s lead sits at 17 markers over Earnhardt with five races remaining before the cutoff for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next heads to Watkins Glen International for the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen next Sunday, August 10th. Kyle Busch is the defending race winner.