Dale Earnhardt, Jr. equalled his career best for number of wins in a single season as he scored his third win of the year following the perfect strategy from crew chief Steve Letarte.
Letarte’s genius fuel strategy led Earnhardt to Victory Lane at Pocono to complete his first sweep of a track since winning both Talladega races in 2002, also scoring Hendrick Motorsport’s fifth successive win at Pocono in the process. The three win tally equals his personal best of wins in a single season, having won three in 2004.
Junior’s first win of the season came at the Daytona 500, while his first victory at Pocono of the year came when Brad Keselowski was forced to slow to remove debris from his grille.
“Steve did a great job, really, with his strategy to get in that position,” said Earnhardt. “We’re not in that position just on car alone. We had a fast car, and I drove a good race, but Steve’s strategy gave us a chance to win.”
The race appeared to be going the way of Earnhardt’s team-mate Jeff Gordon, who was in a commanding position right up to the final round of green flag pit stops. While Earnhardt effectively won the race in the pits, Gordon’s choice to take four tyres – as opposed to Earnhardt’s two – lost the race for the #24.
Greg Biffle inherited the lead from Gordon in the pits at first, running at the top with Kevin Harvick, both of whom had pitted earlier in order to stretch their fuel mileage. Biffle was holding his ground until a caution on lap 139 for AJ Allmendinger bunched the field up once again.
It was from there that Junior started his charge, moving from fifth up to second almost immediately before setting his sights on Biffle and the lead. After making his move and disposing of Biffle, the #88 began to pull away, seemingly with victory in the bag.
However, another late caution, this time for the stricken Kurt Busch, meant Earnhardt had to defend a late charge from Harvick, holding his ground for the final four laps to visit Victory Lane for the third time of the year. Joey Logano took third, while Clint Bowyer, Biffle and Gordon rounded out the top six.
“I’m heart broke that that caution came out. That just killed our day,” said Biffle, who is still to win a race this season and therefor does not yet qualify for a spot in the Chase. “Kevin and I were out there and it was going to be who ran out of fuel unless those guys could catch us. They sounded like they were a long ways back.”
“Those guys pitted and they had to do the exact opposite strategy of us,” added Gordon. “Alan [Gustafson, crew chief] and the team did a great job, an awesome, awesome car. We had the dominant car but you had to have track position and there at the end we didn’t have it.”
Earnhardt now sits 17 points behind Gordon in the Chase standings, as both continued to look strong in recent races, while only the opposite can be said for team-mate Jimmie Johnson, who’s run of bad luck continued. A flat tyre on lap 8 caused the #48 to visit the wall, losing a lap and dropping down to 43rd place on the restart.
Despite rallying back to a top five position, Johnson revisited the wall on lap 112, this time with more velocity, heavily damaging the car and being forced to take to the garage. Finishing in 42nd at both Daytona and New Hampshire, as well as finishing in 12th at last week’s Indianapolis, means that for the first time since 2009 Johnson has finished four straight races outside the top 10.