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It was less than two months ago that the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last visited the unique Pocono Raceway tri-oval, in an event which saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. narrowly beat Brad Keselowski to the chequered flag to claim his second win of the season on top of a famous win at the Daytona 500 season opener. Now they were back at Pocono once again, and Earnhardt was starting from ninth place in his bid to make it two-from-two visits to the Tricky Triangle in 2014.
The GoBowling.com 400 started earlier than originally scheduled due to a forecast of rain showers that ultimately never materialised. Pole sitter Kyle Larson led the field to the green flag but was immediately overtaken by Joey Logano, whose Penske team mate Brad Keselowski had a less successful start to proceedings when he spun while running underneath Kurt Busch. Somehow Keselowski managed to avert what had appeared to be a certain wreck, in the save of not only the race but quite likely of the season - although it dropped him down to 12th place as a result and after which he was never again a serious contender for the rest of the afternoon.
Also running into early issues was Jimmie Johnson, who had yet another tyre blowout, a perennial problem this season for the #48 team. This time is came after making contact with the wall on lap 8, with Johnson taking the blame for the setback: "I got tight off turn one and got in the fence," he reported later. "It pushed the rear quarter panel into the tyre and got the first flat, so my bad."
A resulting debris caution allowed Johnson to pit but he was still a lap down - at least until lap 16 when Danica Patrick encountered tyre issues of her own, a right rear tyre rub ending up putting her into the wall and triggering a second caution which allowed Johnson to claim the lucky dog free pass. Logano had retained the lead through all of this but when racing resumed he had Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon all over him, while Larson was back in fourth ahead of Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray.
It wasn't long before another top contender fell by the wayside, with Kyle Busch forced to bring the #18 onto pit road with an engine issue that was flooding the cockpit with smoke. It was evident that the failure was a serious one, and that Busch was done for the day as he was pushed back to the garage area.
That didn't bring out a caution, but a subsequent wreck for Landon Cassill in turn 2 on lap 29 did just after Kevin Harvick had saved a big moment of his own as the #4 got very loose, allowing Gordon to pass him for second. Most of the cars took the opportunity to pit under the caution, with Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Paul Menard inheriting the lead when they stayed out having previously come in under the earlier cautions. Of those who came in, Brian Vickers won the race off pit road after taking two tyres only allowing him to rejoin the track in tenth place ahead of Tony Stewart and former leader Logano.
Busch ran well in the clean air at the front, but eventually it was his turn to make his way to pit lane for his deferred stop on lap 44; Jeff Gordon took over the lead, having proved the fastest of those cars that has stopped under the most recent caution. Logano was two seconds back from the #24 in second place followed by McMurray, Stewart, Vickers and Harvick as the differing pit stop strategies began to play out.
A wrinkle in the teams' various plans came when Joe Nemechek was assisted into the wall by a tap from Kasey Kahne on lap 51 to bring out the fourth caution of the afternoon. The leaders opted follow their strategy playbook and stayed out, with Gordon still in charge for the restart on lap 56 with Logano and Vickers in tow followed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer.
Another cycle of green flag pit stops went through without significant incident, which included Kurt Busch among those once again getting his ten-lap spell at the front. By the time the midway point of the 160-lap race was reached Gordon was back out in front, with his Hendrick Motorsport team mate Earnhardt riding shotgun ahead of Logano, Johnson, Harvick and Busch. Another cycle put the leaders within one final stop of reaching the finish - although in the case of Gordon, Earnhardt and their cohort it would take some fuel conservation along the way - but there was a blow for Harvick when he earned himself a drive-thru penalty for speeding on pit lane that dropped him down to 28th place.
Jimmie Johnson had performed a remarkable recovery after his early tyre blow-out at the start of the race, but his revival came to a thudding end on lap 112 when he found the wall again in turn 2 and this time far more emphatically. This time thee car had sustained too much damage to be coaxed back to life by the #48 crew meaning it was an early finish to the day for the reigning Sprint Cup champion. Johnson said he was mystified by the cause of this second accident.
"On that one, I am clueless. It didn't act like a tyre went down and I am not exactly sure if it did," he said. " Normally when they go down that quick they explode and there was no explosion, the tyre did not come apart, it just went straight. We are trying to get in there and look at it; obviously the tire is flat now from the impact. Hopefully we can get a reason why.
"Unfortunate with how hard we fought to get ourselves back in contention and I was really proud of this Lowe's team," he added. " It wasn't the best weekend but we still gave ourselves a chance at a win if not a top five today and came up a little short."
The leaders stayed out under the ensuing caution, but further back Harvick opted to pit for fresh tyres and a major set-up change in an effort to address the evil handling of the #4 in traffic that he had been complaining about all day.
Gordon led Earnhardt, Busch, Logano and Kahne to the restart on lap 117 but it was short-lived and fairly calamitous when Denny Hamlin got sideways and triggered a multi-car wreck collecting those running three-wide behind him, including Stewart, Keselowski, Menard, Almirola, Vickers, Truex and Allgaier; in total, 13 cars were caught up including Harvick who had successfully swerved to avoid the initial wreck only to run foul of a drainage pot hole in the in-field grass causing damage that needed a visit to pit lane to attend to. Hamlin himself escaped relatively unscathed from the chaos.
"All I know is the #11 [Hamlin] got loose on the outside, maybe two rows in from of me," said Menard, whose hood ended up stuck underneath Stewart's car in the wreck. "Next thing I know the #55 [Vickers] got turned in front of me and there was nowhere to go."
"It started far enough ahead of us that we couldn't see it," contributed Stewart, who confirmed that he hadn't aggravated his 2013 leg injury in the accident. "We were just coming off of two there and somebody got sideways and started wrecking in front of us and we got caught up in it. I ended up on top of Paul Menard's hood so it wasn't where we wanted to end up by any means."
"I saw smoke and I saw one car make a hard right into the fence and I knew that they were wrecking," was Almirola's report. "I just tried to aim for the middle and hope for best. I was behind Keselowski and there were cars inside of us, so I couldn't turn left. I was just along for the ride.
"Everybody started to check up. I was on the brakes as hard as I could and I got creamed from behind and pushed into the wreck. There's nothing you can do when it gets like that, so it was just a big pile up trying to get all we can get on the restarts."
"I almost missed that wreck, I went low but just couldn't avoid the mess. Very disappointing," added Truex, who later rejoined the race in a serious damaged race car in order to gain a few extra positions (and points) in the final results. "We weren't that good today but there was that possibility of posting a top 15 or top ten had it not been for the accident."
Still not within their window to make it to the finish, Gordon, Logano, Busch and McMurray all stayed out while Bowyer and Earnhardt dropped to eighth and ninth respectively after opting to come in for fuel and tyres now with the intention of making a quick splash-and-dash later. When the green flag came out with 34 laps remaining, Gordon once again began to move smartly away from the field.
Once he was within his fuel window seven laps later, Gordon dived for pit lane for his final stop of the day as did all the others that had stayed out under the caution. Even Earnhardt came in again, opting for that fuel top-up sooner rather than later; as he didn't need to wait for any fresh tyres he was out again in a flash compared to Gordon and the others who dropped down the running order.
"All we needed to get there was a gallon or two while the rest of the guys in front of us needed four tyres and a full tank," Earnhardt explained "We were on pit road for two seconds in the box and they were in their pit stalls for 12-14 seconds. We were able to leapfrog those guys."
All of this frenzy of pit strategy had left Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Denny Hamlin contending for the race lead after staying out. They were warned to save fuel, and were helped in that regard by a new caution on lap 139 when AJ Allmendinger hit the wall; however when it came to the restart they were at a serious disadvantage to Earnhardt and Bowyer who both had fresher tyres and more fuel to burn in their bid to claim the lead.
Earnhardt finally took the lead from Biffle by diving down the inside on lap 147; Biffle was able to hold off Bowyer from doing the same, but Earnhardt was now rapidly disappearing into the distance. Without another caution to close the field back up again, there was no chance of anyone reeling in the #88 before the chequered flag.
As it turned out, there was another caution: Kurt Busch hit the wall on lap 153 after a tyre went down, bringing out the yellow flags for the eighth time which immediately wiped out the three second lead that Earnhardt had opened up. Biffle had faded after being passed for the lead allowing Harvick to take up second position ahead of Bowyer, Logano and Gordon for what would now prove to be a final three lap sprint to the chequered flag once racing resumed.
Earnhardt nailed the restart and pulled away from Harvick, and this time there were no further hurdles for Junior to jump before he could cross the finish line and claim his second victory at Pocono Raceway of 2014, making him the first driver to sweep the event since Denny Hamlin did so in 2006; Earnhardt himself previously managed to 'sweep' the two Talladega races in 2002. This was Earnhardt's 22nd victory in 526 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and his third win of the season, which further enhances his position in the post-season Chase which begins after next month's race at Richmond.
Earnhardt credited his crew chief Steve Letarte for masterminding the crucial winning strategy: "He's the guy you need to talk to, 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 takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do and take those gambles," he continued. "Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don't. I've got a lot of faith in Steve and the strategy he used today gave us the opportunity to get by some guys that we probably weren't going to pass on the race track."
Letarte - who has been widely credited with helping to rejuvenate Earnhardt's career in recent seasons - is leaving the team for a job in the media at the end of the season. It was announced before the weekend that he would be succeeded by Greg Ives, a former race engineer on Jimmie Johnson's car who has more recently been working as a crew chief for Earnhardt's Nationwide Series team JR Motorsports with conspicuous success in getting rookie driver Chase Elliott to victory lane.
"As good as Steve is and as great of a crew chief as he is the whole team is that deep," said Earnhardt. "Everybody has got a great personality, everybody is an expert at what they are doing and everybody does a great job at it. I'm real lucky to be a part of it. I can't thank these guys enough. They have really brought my career around and it is fun to be a part of this."
Coming home in second place, Kevin Harvick was counting his blessings after being peripherally involved in the multi-car wreck, while Joey Logano in third place was regretting not making the most of his opportunities toward the end.
"I timed that last [restart] pretty good," said Harvick. "But I couldn't turn into the corner like I needed to to stay beside him. I thought if I could get beside him going into 1 I'd have a chance, but he was a little better than I was in Turn 3."
"That last restart my plan was to push Kevin down into one and hopefully those two would be door-to-door inside of the race track and the seas would part for me," contributed Logano. "But Dale just went quite a bit earlier than I thought he would and I didn't have the full momentum behind Kevin. I was almost sleeping a little bit there, so I'm kind of bummed out a little bit about that, but, overall, our Shell/Pennzoil Ford was good."
Bowyer held on for fourth place and Biffle recovered to fifth, leaving Jeff Gordon finishing in sixth place despite leading a race-high 63 laps during the afternoon - which took his total career tally to more than 24,000 laps led in the Sprint Cup Series, a thousand of them at Pocono alone.
"We had the dominant car, but you had to have track position and you know, there at the end we didn't have it," he sighed. "With Dale getting out in front of us there through that pit sequence, there was nothing we could do. He was really good. Whoever got out front, him or me, was going to win this race.
"I am still really happy with the way our car performed today," he added. "It's just so awesome and encouraging and has got my confidence sky high and I just can't wait to get to the next race."
The next race is in a week at Watkins Glen, but in the meantime Gordon can enjoy the fact that he still leads the Sprint Cup standings by 17 points from his team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both drivers are already locked in to the Chase along with a third member of the Hendrick line-up, Jimmie Johnson. Earnhardt, Johnson and Brad Keselowski have three race wins so far in 2014 while Gordon, Logano, Harvick and Carl Edwards all have two.
Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola and Kurt Busch are also set for Chase places after winning one race apiece, leaving just five more places available to drivers on a points basis: currently those would go to Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Greg Biffle. However there are still five races to go, and more first-time winners could still dramatically change that equation before the Chase cut-off on September 6.
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