Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a piece of trash to thank. Earnhardt took the lead from the dominate Brad Keselowski with four laps to go at Pocono Raceway Sunday and held on for victory in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Pocono 400.
Keselowski’s downfall came when he tried to get behind the slower car of Danica Patrick exiting turn 1 to clean the grill. He followed her up towards the wall and lost momentum; Earnhardt soon got by and was able to get enough of a lead to score the win. It was his second win of the season, his first at Pocono and the 21st of his career.
“I didn’t think he would go up there to try to get the stuff off his grille, ” Earnhardt said of Keselowski who led a race high 95 laps.”I don’t think he ended up getting it off his grille. I was surprised that he did that, but he felt like he needed to I suppose. He definitely had the race won up to that point. I was having a hard time making any ground on him, but we both had real competitive cars and it feels good to run well and capitalize on some else’s issue. We have told ourselves many times we just need to be around toward the end of these races and we can capitalize. We did today.”
On a day featuring a varied amount of pit strategy, Earnhardt’s crew led by crew chief Steve Letarte, made the right calls that put Earnhardt in the top five late in the race and ultimately led to his win.
“He had me beat I couldn’t get to him, “Just real hard to pass here. But I have lost some in some strange ways so it feels good to win one like that.”
Keselowski took the blame for losing the race at the end.
“We were just running really hot and the motor was going to blow up,” Keselowski said. “I had to do something so I tried to follow the 10 (Patrick) down in the corner to get the debris off and I just checked up too much. I thought I had more room than I did. The team did a heck of a job, I just messed up a little bit there. We had a really, really good car. It was really a flawless day other than my mess-up there.”
Kurt Busch was third, polesitter Denny Hamlin was fourth and Kyle Larson continues his imrepssive rookie season with his first top five finish on the year.
Hamlin didn’t lead a lap at the start of the race as Keselowski powered by at turn 1 with a little bump that sent Hamlin up the track. At the end of lap 1 Hamlin was third behind Keselowski and Jeff Gordon. Kevin Harvick was fourth, Kurt Busch was fifth.
Green flag stops started on lap 26 led by Jimmie Johnson. Keselowski came in on lap 28 and stayed in the lead after the cycle was over. The first caution came out on lap 31 for a small grass fire in turn 3.
The green came out on lap 36 with Keselowski in the lead, Gordon second, Harvick third. On the start Keselowski shot to the lead while Gordon, Harvick and Kurt Busch fought for position. Busch took over second, Harvick third, Gordon fell into fourth.
By lap 49, Tony Stewart was in fourth jus behind Gordon who had taken over third a few laps prior; Jimmie Johnson who had started 20th was up to 10th. Harvick started the second round of green flag stops on lap 56. Keselowski gave up the lead for his stop on lap 58.
The second caution, this for debris in turn 3 came out on lap 60 in the midst of green flag stops. The cycle had just completed and Keselowski remained in the lead. The restart came on lap 65; Harvick was able to hang on the inside until turn 2 when Keselowski was able to move ahead. Johnson was fighting Stewart for fourth.
The third caution came out for debris from JJ Yeley in turn 1 on lap 71. Johnson was the first of the leaders to come in; as he was leaving his pit stall he was hit by Marcos Ambrose and spun in pit lane. Johnson was forced to slowly back up and return to his pit stall for repairs. The green came out on lap 75 and Tony Stewart was able to power his way to the lead followed by Harvick and Kurt Busch; Keselowski found himself in fifth.
The fourth caution came out on lap 80 when Dave Blaney spun coming out of turn 2. The leaders stayed out having just pitted. The restart came on lap 84 with Stewart leading on the inside, Kurt Busch on the outside. Busch was able to power past Stewart for the lead.
Busch held the lead until lap 92 when he came in for a green flag stop, followed by teammate Harvick; Stewart stayed out to lead. Stewart pitted on lap 96. Hamlin took over the lead, but was due for a stop and pitted on lap 98 handing the lead to Earnhardt Jr. Earnhardt pitted on lap 101; Kyle Larson took the lead for the first time in his rookie year. Like Larson, Johnson was off cycle in pit stops and was in second. Larson came in on lap 109 giving the lead to Johnson. Johnson pitted on lap 111. Stewart was back in the lead with Harvick second Keselowski third Kurt Busch fourth and Gordon fifth.
On lap 116, Harvick lost a left front tire and was forced to pit. He returned to the field in 32nd. A lap later the fifth caution came out for possible fluid on the track. Stewart led several of the leaders in for pit stops. Stewart won the race off pit road but was penalized for speeding and sent to the tail end of the longest line for the restart. On track, Keselowski who was among those who had stayed out, too over the lead; Earnhardt Jr. was second, Hamlin third, Clint Bowyer fourth and Edwards fifth.
The restart came out on lap 122. Keselowski moved to a clear lead; behind Johnson was dueling with Edwards for fifth and was able to take over the spot a lap later. Keselowski held the lead until lap 129 when he pitted for his green flag stop starting what should have been the final round of stops for the day.
The sixth caution came out on lap 137 when Danica Patrick hit lost a tire and hit the wall in turn 3. The lead group stayed out. Keselowski led, Earnhardt Jr. was second, Johnson third, Joey Logano fourth and Clint Boyer fifth.
The green came out with 19 to go and Keselowski on the outside was able to pull ahead of Earnhardt, Kurt Busch was third. The seventh caution came out a lap later on lap 143 with a crash involving Kahne and Edwards. Kahne had slid out exiting turn 1, hit the wall and got down into Edwards. Both cars suffered heavy damage and were done for the day.
The final restart came with 12 laps to go. Keselowski led from the outside and after a short battle with Earnhardt moved ahead. The only issue was the large piece of trash that appeared on the grill of his Ford.
Earnhardt went by for the lead with four to go and Earnhardt held on and for the first time since the season opening Daytona 500, celebrated in victory lane. He becomes the fourth driver this year with multiple wins joining Johnson, Logano and Harvick.
“Wins aren’t really anything unless you can enjoy it with good people.,” Earnhardt said while praising his crew.” Without good people around there is not much to them. I’m having the best time of my life. I think the rest of the crew could say the same. Steve (crew chief Letarte) has got to be enjoying himself this year. We have worked to get to this point to be in position to win races. It’s great to finally do it. We didn’t have it won, Brad (Keselowski) definitely had it won and I definitely understand that, but we have got to be around at the end and we got the team poised and ready for that. We capitalized today.”
Johnson was sixth, Ryan Newman seventh, Jeff Gordon eighth, Martin Truex Jr. ninth and Jamie McMurray 10th.
Earnhardt moves into third in the championship point standings behind Gordon and Matt Kenseth as the series heads to Michigan International Speedway for next Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400.