Dale Earnhardt Jr. played the pit strategy game better than anyone Sunday taking the lead with 14 laps to go and holding off a hard charging Kevin Harvick on a restart with two laps to go to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway. Having won in June, Earnhardt becomes the sixth driver to sweep the races at Pocono and the first since 2006.
The win was his third of the season and the 22nd of his NASCAR Cup Series career. The victory ties Earnhardt with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the most series wins in 2014. The key to the win came with the pit strategy call by crew chief Steve Letarte on lap 120. Earnhardt pitted while most of the leaders stayed out. From there all he needed was a quick splash of fuel in the closing laps that eventually had him in fourth place. From there he was able to race his way to the front and the lead with 14 laps to go.
“He’s the guy you need to talk to,” Earnhardt said of his crew chief. “I’m in the car I can’t even figure out what is going on. I just trust what he does, decisions he makes. It started to make sense. A lot of these race tracks with the tires the way they are you’ve got to minimize the time you are on pit road during the race. That is what he was trying to do.”
Harvick whose Chevy suffered damage during a crash on lap 116 and was nailed for a pit road speeding penalty held on for second, Joey Logano was third, Clint Bowyer fourth, Greg Biffle was fifth. Jeff Gordon, who led a race high 63 laps came home sixth.
“This hasn’t been one of my best tracks,” Harvick said. “I just have to thank all my guys on this Mobil 1 Chevy for putting us in position to at least pull some strategy there. I made a lot of mistakes today and they made up for it with a fast race car.”
The threat of rain showers led NASCAR to move up the time of the green flag by about 20 minutes.
Rookie Kyle Larson had the pole but it was Logano who led the first lap; on that first lap his teammate Keselowski nearly lost it entering the tunnel turn, he made an amazing save and was able to continue.
Trouble found Johnson on lap 9 when he slowed with a flat right rear tire after hitting the wall in along the front stretch; the debris brought out the first caution of the day. Kurt Busch from third was the first of the lead group to pit. Logano in first and Larson in second both elected to stay out. Gordon also stayed out and fell into third, Harvick fourth with Jamie McMurray fifth. Johnson restarted a lap down in 43.
Logano held off Larson on the restart on lap 13; Harvick was soon moving forward and took over second bringing Gordon with him into third, Larson settled into fourth. Danica Patrick lost a tire on lap 16 and hit the wall in turn 2 on lap 16 bringing out the second caution. She hit the wall in the same spot the lap prior. Johnson got his lap back. All the leaders stayed out under the caution.
The green came out on lap 19. Logano was able to pull ahead while Harvick was forced to fend off Larson to hold on to second. Kyle Busch slowed on lap 23 reporting that his car was filling with smoke. By the time he got to pit road smoke was coming out the exhaust; the engine was shut off and the crew pushed the car to the garage.
Landon Cassill hit the wall hard in turn two bringing out the third caution on lap 28. Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray were just pitting for green flag stops, they were able to beat the caution flag. The leaders all came in for stops. Brian Vickers led off pit road followed by Tony Stewart, both had taken only two tires. Logano came off third, the first with four tires. A total of nine cars however were on a different pit strategy and stayed out lead by Kurt Busch. Martin Truex Jr. was second, Matt Kenseth third, Paul Menard fourth, and Austin Dillon fifth. Vickers the first off pit road restarted 10th.
Busch led to the green on lap 34, Truex held onto second, Kenseth third. Vickers and Logano followed by Gordon slowly began to work their way forward and three laps later Vickers was 7th, Logano was 8th, Gordon 9th. Busch was able to stretch his lead out to nearly two seconds up front. By lap 42 it was 4.2 seconds. Behind Gordon got by Logano for 4th, a lap later he got by Kenseth for third then second a lap later. Busch pitted on lap 45 handing the lead to Gordon. Kenseth and Truex followed Busch in for green flag stops. Those like Gordon who had pitted on lap 30 included Logano who took over second, and McMurray in third. Tony Stewart was 6.6 seconds behind in fourth.
Joe Nemechek was forced into the wall by Kahne exiting turn 3 on lap 51 bringing out caution number four. Sticking to strategy, the leaders led by Gordon stayed out. Those from 18th back pitted led by Ryan Newman.
Gordon led to the green on lap 56 with Logano second, Vickers third, Dale Earnhardt Jr. fourth with Clint Bowyer fifth. On lap 60, Earnhardt slid past Vickers for third. McMurray began the green flag stops on lap 64; Bowyer followed a lap later with Gordon giving up the lead close behind. The rest of the lead group pitted handing the lead back to Kurt Busch, Kahne was second, Johnson third, Stewart fourth and Kenseth fifth.
Johnson led the second cycle of stops on lap 71; Kahne came in a lap later. Busch stayed out and pitted on lap 75, when the cycle was over Gordon was back in the lead. Earnhardt fell into second and started reeling in Gordon. Earnhardt pitted from second on lap 94. Gordon came in from the lead a lap later. During the stops, Harvick was nailed by NASCAR for speeding and given a pass through penalty. On the track Kurt Busch cycled back to the lead with Kahne second, Kenseth third, Stewart fourth and Dillon fifth; Gordon was sixth. Kahne pitted on lap 100. Busch pitted on lap 103, Kenseth took over the lead but needed to pit. His lead over Gordon was five seconds when he finally did pit at lap 106. Gordon retook the lead, Earnhardt was second, Logano third, Kurt Busch fourth and Johnson fifth. Gordon’s lead was three seconds over Earnhardt.
The fifth caution came out for Johnson who hit the wall again, this time in turn 2 on lap 111. Unlike the first time, the damage was too much and Johnson was forced to the garage. Johnson had rallied back and was fifth at the time. The top 10 stayed out while many of those behind pitted.
Gordon led to the green on lap 116 with Earnhardt in second on the inside and Busch behind him. But as the field exited turn 1 Denny Hamlin got loose, Vickers slowed and set off a crash that involved Kenseth, Vickers, Stewart and 11 other cars. Kenseth, Vickers and Stewart were done for the day, six others went to the garage including Carl Edwards who dropped low to avoid the crash and went airborne when he hit some storm drains.
When pit road finally opened, Earnhardt Jr. came in from second; he restarted ninth, Gordon stayed out to remain in the lead. The green flew on 127 with 15 cars on the lead lap; Gordon led Busch was second, Logano third, McMurray fourth and Larson fifth. Gordon was able to get in front of Busch for the lead. McMurray pitted on lap 130; Earnhardt had worked his way to seventh. Busch came into pit on lap 132, behind him Earnhardt dove in for a splash of fuel. Gordon pitted just behind taking four tires and fuel. Gordon re-joined the field 8th. Up front Harvick led, followed by Greg Biffle, Hamlin and Justin Allgaier. Earnhardt was in fifth 24 seconds behind the lead.
Biffle was able to take the lead with 24 laps to go as Harvick slowed to save fuel. Caution seven came out on lap 138 when AJ Allmendinger, who was involved in the earlier crash, hit the turn 2 wall. The caution erased a 19-second deficit Earnhardt had to Harvick. Biffle’s crew told him to stay out despite being two laps short on fuel. Harvick and Hamlin were on the same strategy; Allgaier pitted putting Earnhardt in fourth.
The restart came with 17 laps to go. Biffle led, Earnhardt slid into second, Bowyer was in third. Earnhardt stayed close to Biffle and with 14 to go was able to power past for the lead; from there he began to stretch out his lead. with 12 to go he was almost two second ahead of Biffle. Harvick meanwhile had taken over third, with 11 to go Harvick moved past Biffle into second, Logano soon charged past Biffle for third. Gordon was slowly making his way through the field and was fifth with 8 laps to go. Kurt Busch got into the turn 2 wall with 6 laps to go bringing out the eighth caution and erasing a three second lead for Earnhardt.
On the restart with four laps to go, Earnhardt led, Harvick was second, Logano was third, Bowyer fourth and Gordon fifth. Harvick held station on the inside to turn 1 but Earnhardt was able to move ahead exiting the turn; Harvick stayed close however and the two were nose to tail in the final laps. Earnhardt was too strong and was able to keep his lead to the end and his third victory of the season.
“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) one. I was just going to have to really get brave and drive it down in there and pray for it to stick. I drove it in there and we were able to clear him somehow. He had a strong car though. I was over driving mine terribly those last few laps and not getting enough speed out of my car, but we just had the dirty air to keep him behind us. We were good in the tunnel in turn three, but I was burying it into one way too deep and he was gaining on me there.”
Behind Gordon, McMurray was seventh, Ryan Newman eighth, Hamlin ninth with Kahne rounding out the top 10.
“Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on but that was pretty awesome. It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do to take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. I can’t believe we swept Pocono. I think the 24 had a great car, the 41 was fast all weekend but we definitely went home from the last race and made our car better. So, that is what I am proudest of this team for. They went back and didn’t sit on what we had, they wanted to get better, faster car so we didn’t have to rely on luck to win. “
Gordon holds on the championship points standings, Earnhardt second, Keselowski who suffered damage on the lap 117 crash finished 23rd but remains third in the standings, Kenseth who was forced to retire after the same crash and finished 38th is fourth and Newman fifth. Johnson crashed twice Sunday, the second time after he rallied back to fifth and finished 29th is sixth, Logano seventh, Edwards who finished 29th is eighth, Bowyer ninth and Kyle Busch who retired with a blown engine and finished 42nd is tenth.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup series heads to New York and the 2.45 road course at Watkins Glen next Sunday.