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NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., sent his legion of fans into a frenzy with victory over Brad Keselowski in the Pocono 400, his second race win of the season after having previously won the season-opening Daytona 500 in February.
"Brad definitely had the better car and I am definitely owning up to that, but we won the race," he said, after a small piece of debris on the grille of Keselowski's car made the crucial difference in the final laps. "We didn't have it won, Brad 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 were there all day running great," continued Earnhardt as he celebrated in victory lane. "We had a fast car just never really got that track position until the end. You've got to be there and we were. Somebody had an issue so we capitalised. I'm real proud of my team and especially [crew chief] Steve Letarte."
It's Earnhardt's 21st victory in 519 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and the first time that he's won more than one race in a single season since 2004, when he claimed six victories. It's also the first time that he's won at the unique 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway tri-oval.
"I've never won here. I've never been here [in victory lane]. This is amazing! I can mark this one off," Earnhardt said. "We have worked to get to this point to be in position to win races. It's great to finally do it."
It had been Keselowski who had gained the lead at the start of the race, after he gave polesitter Denny Hamlin a big push at the green flag sending the #11 up high into turn 1. That allowed Keselowski and Jeff Gordon to pass for position while Hamlin was indisposed. He continued to lose positions so that after the first round of green flag pit stops that began on lap 25 there were three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in the top five in the shape of Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and team co-owner Tony Stewart.
A small grass fire in the infield at turn 2 - close to where the pre-race fireworks had been set-off - caused the first caution on lap 32 but the leaders stayed off pit road and Keselowski continued to lead the field when the green flag came out again, the Penske #2 quickly pulling out two seconds in the lead despite reporting a vibration.
Keselowski surrendered the lead to pit under green on lap 57, but before the cycle was completed there was a caution for debris in turn 3. That was well-timed for Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing team mate Matt Kenseth, who had earlier rear-ended the #1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy and done extensive damage to the front of his own car and so needed a long visit on pit lane for repairs.
Keselowski retook point for the restart ahead of Harvick, Gordon, Stewart and Busch with Earnhardt running in sixth place ahead of Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer. Gordon was lacking pace in this stint and fell backwards down the running order, leaving the Stewart-Haas Racing trio to fight over second place amongst themselves.
The top four stayed out under the next debris caution on lap 72, and that proved rather a wise move as pit road proved a risky place to be as a miscommunication ended up with Jimmie Johnson colliding heavily with Aric Almirola: Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus shouldered the blame for that one. The #48 dropped back to the rear of the lead lap as a result of the incident.
"We were leaving pretty quick and Chad was spotting me out of the pit and took full responsibility for it," said Johnson. "He didn't know the #9 was ahead of us pulling in, he thought the #9 had left his pit box so it was just confusion on pit road.
"I feel terrible for the #9 guys and hurting their race car and taking them out of a good day," he added. "It hurt out race car too. But most of all, there was a tyre changer and tyre carrier on the right front of the #51 car [Justin Allgaier] and how I didn't hit those guys is beyond me. And I am so thankful I didn't hit those guys. It wouldn't have been good."
Keselowski took the restart in the lead but he was immediately shuffled back by Stewart, Busch and Harvick, and also by Earnhardt moving into fourth place, leaving Keselowski fighting over fifth with his Penske team mate Joey Logano until a new caution on lap 80 when Dave Blaney spun out at turn 1. After the restart, Stewart and Busch traded the lead several times after the SHR trio and Keselowski had passed up the opportunity to pit under yellow in favour of sticking to their fuel strategy which saw an extended cycle of stops get underway from lap 96.
Once this was completed on lap 112, Stewart was back out in front by over a second from Harvick, but the SHR domination of the race was about to come to an end as Harvick dived back onto pit road with a left rear tyre issue. That was just before the caution flags were out again on lap 118, this time for oil on the track, and when Stewart decided to take the opportunity to make a stop under yellow he ended up with a speeding penalty for his pains which sent him back to 27th place, while Harvick was even further back in 32nd and still suffering from tyre and handling issues as the race got back to green.
"One hundred percent driver error," sighed Stewart. "I don't know how I got through the lights like I did, but I got to where I blew through all the lights and didn't have any on the tach so I had no clue that I was over it."
To cap it all, the fourth member of the SHR squad Danica Patrick was the cause of the next caution on lap 137 when she hit the wall: "“I just went into turn three, and the car just shot to the wall,” she said. “It looks like the left front lost air for some reason. I believe Harvick had the same thing happen to him. Goodyear said our cars had similar left front tyre issues - lost air in tires and sidewalls bowed out. It's disappointing, because I think we could have had a good finish."
On the upside, that at least handed Harvick the free pass he needed to get back onto the lead lap after his earlier woes. Even so, it looked as though in terms of prospects for claiming the race win the team's standard was now being flown by Kurt Busch who was now running in third place behind Keselowski and Earnhardt with 20 laps remaining.
Three laps later and the race was under yellow again, this time for a nasty impact against the wall for Kasey Kahne, which also collected Roush Fenway Racing duo Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle in the process. The #18 JGR car of Kyle Busch was also pit-bound after the multi-car wreck, and the other drivers pointed the fingers in his direction for instigating the incident.
"I had just passed Kyle and I caught [Ryan] Newman I was passing him off turn 3," described Kahne. "We were side-by-side so Kyle was able to get a good draft down the straightaway. We got to Turn 1 and I was on the outside and then he knew if he didn't clear me there then I would pass him back because I just had.
"He just floored it and didn't care there was someone out there and ran me right in the wall. We both ended up wrecking. I think he wrecked a little bit, but I hit a good bit harder once we hit my car just went hard right."
"I saw Kasey hit the wall really hard," said Edwards, picking up the story. "I think it was Kasey in the #5 car and I tried to avoid it but there was oil all over the track and I ploughed into the back of him. Everyone did a good job of missing me but man Kasey hit hard. I hope he is alright."
Kahne was evaluated by the in-field medical centre and soon released, but he and Edwards were both done for the day with too much damage to their race cars, while Biffle and Kyle Busch were able to continue after repairs on pit lane and they both managed to finish on the lead lap in 16th and 12th positions respectively.
At the final restart with 12 laps to go, Keselowski took the green flag ahead of Earnhardt, Kurt Busch, Logano, Hamlin, Bowyer and Hendrick pair Johnson and Gordon. The Penske car looked more than strong enough to bring home the win from here, which is more than could be said about his team mate who lost oil pressure and was forced to crawl onto pit road with an engine failure.
Within minutes, Keselowski had his own problems: some debris on the front grille was reducing air intake, and as a result the oil and water temperatures in the #2 were sky-rocketing. Not about to come down pit road, Keselowski took the next-best option and surrendered the lead to Earnhardt in order to try and use the draft off the back of the #88 to suck the debris off his grille before the engine blew up.
"We were just running really hot and the motor was going to blow up so I had to do something," confirmed Keselowski afterwards. "I just checked up too much. I thought I had more room than I did. ... 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."
The move got Keselowski to the finish, but once he'd given up the lead he was unable to get it back: to the delight of the legions of Junior Nation fanatics at Pocono, Dale proved unstoppable on his way to the chequered flag, finally winning the race by almost half a second over Keselowski, Busch and Hamlin, with Ganassi rookie Kyle Larson surging at the end to beat Johnson to sixth place.
"He didn't want to let me by, but I don't know if his motor was going to make it," said Earnhardt of the view from his race seat of the final laps. "That is unfortunate for him. 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."
By claiming his second win of the season, Earnhardt is now guaranteed a place in the 2014 Chase play-offs - assuming that he finishes in the top 30 in the points standings, and attempts to qualify in the remaining 12 races before the cut-off at Richmond in September.
"We are definitely going to enjoy it," said Earnhardt. "It goes into the books and helps us toward the Chase."
Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick have similarly booked their Chase play-offs, while Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Brad Keseleowski, Denny Hamlin and Kurt Busch are all looking fairly certain of joining them in the play-offs with one win apiece.
Gordon also currently holds the points lead in the Sprint Cup championship, by 16 points from Matt Kenseth who took a hit in the standings after finishing in 25th place at the rear of the lead lap after his early problems at Pocono.
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