In a wild, strategy-driven race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte were able to come out on top to win Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 and complete a sweep of the year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway.
While his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon was the most dominant car of the day, leading 63 laps, Earnhardt Jr. was able to get by Gordon on the final green-flag stop of the day to gain ever-valuable track position in the closing stages.
When AJ Allmendinger brought out the caution of the day with 22 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. was able get a strong restart and challenge Greg Biffle for the top spot.
Gambling on fuel, Biffle stayed out on track trying to score his first win of the season, but his car was nowhere near as fast as the best cars all day.
On the restart Biffle was able to stay out front with clean air for a number of laps, but eventually Earnhardt Jr. was able to make the move for the lead exiting Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Once out front, Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet drove away from the field.
However, one of the strongest cars of the day, the No. 51 Chevrolet driven by Kurt Busch, hit the wall multiple times running 10th, bringing out the caution with just seven laps to go. The caution erased the 3.5-second lead he held over Kevin Harvick, Busch’s Stewart-Haas Racing teammate.
Restarting the race with three laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. was able to surge ahead of Harvick to retain the lead as the field fought for position behind him.
The victory marked Earnhardt Jr.’s third win of the season, the most wins he’s had in a season since 2004 when he won a career-high six races.
"Just trying to hold them off, they were faster," Earnhardt Jr. said of his fiercest competition much of the day. "My car, I was over-driving it and not rolling the center very good. Kevin was getting me in Turn 1 and 2. I just couldn’t back it down, and I was way over-driving the car. I could get through the Tunnel (Turn) and (Turn) 3, I just fine, but man, he would come through 1 and 2. I wasn’t driving the car right."
But he drove it just fine when he absolutely had to over the final laps.
"We had a fast car all day," Earnhardt Jr. said. "Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end. I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on, man, but it was pretty awesome. It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do to take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. I can’t believe we swept Pocono."
Sunday’s victory was also the fifth Pocono win in a row for Hendrick Motorsports.
VIDEO: Kevin Harvick recovers to finish runner-up at Pocono
What stood out for Earnhardt Jr. above all was that Letarte and the No. 88 team did not rest on what worked when the team won in June.
Despite damage from a 14-car incident and a mid-race speeding penalty, Harvick made a strong charge for the lead on the final lap, but could not get around Earnhardt Jr.
With his second-place finish, Harvick was able to officially lock himself into the 16-driver Chase field.
When asked what he needed to top Earnhardt Jr., Harvick simply said to not have wrecked the car.
"I got to looking in the mirror on pit road and got ourselves a speeding penalty," Harvick said. "This hasn’t been one of my best tracks. I just have to thank all my guys on this Mobil 1 Chevy for putting us in this position to at least have an opportunity to pull some strategy there. … I made a lot of mistakes today, and they made up with it with a fast racecar."
Joey Logano finished third, followed by Clint Bowyer, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne.
While Earnhardt Jr. was able to score the win, it was his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon that had the most dominant car on the day. Leading a rce-high 63 of the 160 laps, Gordon appeared to be in position to score back-to-back wins, but struggled in the final laps of the race, eventually finishing sixth.
Sunday’s race featured 17 lead changes among 10 different drivers, and was slowed eight times for a total of 35 laps of caution.
The biggest incident of the day came on Lap 117 when Denny Hamlin lost control of his No. 11 Toyota exiting Turn 1 on a restart. As Brian Vickers tried to avoid Hamlin’s out-of-control car, he shot to the outside of the track, into Matt Kenseth and into the outside wall.
With the track blocked, the field had nowhere to go as they drove out of the corner. In all, 14 cars were collected in the incident, including runner-up Harvick, who somehow not only survived it but ultimately drove his No. 4 Chevy up to second.
The Sprint Cup Series heads to the final road course of the year next week at Watkins Glen.
VIDEO: Clint Bowyer happy with quality finish at Pocono