LONG POND, Pa. You’ve been warned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.: Danger lies ahead.
That’s good news for his legion of fans and likely for NASCAR.
Earnhardt passed Brad Keselowski with four of 160 laps remaining in Sunday’s Pocono 400 to earn his first Sprint Cup Series victory at Pocono Raceway and his second series win of the season.
It’s the first time since 2004 – when he won six times – that Earnhardt has had a multiple-win season, and the first during his six-plus years at Hendrick Motorsports.
That improved performance might not bode well for the competition.
“We’re doing some of our best work, certainly, right now. We should – we have a lot of passion and there’s a lot of emotion, considering this is (crew chief) Steve (Letarte’s) last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.
“So, that can be dangerous, I think, for everybody else if we win, to get better. We’re still not the best team. We can always improve, and there’s areas where we can improve.”
Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team were not the best most of the day, but they were good enough to be in the right position at a critical time.
Brad Keselowski seemed to have the victory in hand on a restart with 11 laps remaining, but debris on his front grille spiked his engine temperatures to a dangerous level.
Keselowski attempted a daring move to slide in behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick in hopes the air would nudge the debris free, but the only thing he accomplished was allowing Earnhardt to pass him for the lead with four laps left.
Earnhardt also had debris on his grille but he and Keselowski made it to the finish incident free, leaving Earnhardt in Victory Lane and fans in the grandstands on their feet in celebration long after the race was over.
“I don’t know what his temperatures were, but they must have been very, very hot for Brad to do that,” said Earnhardt, who earned his 21st career victory.
“I knew right then when he did that, he was so slow, I thought, ‘We’re going to pass him, we’re going to take the lead.’ I thought if I just run tidy corners, he would have trouble with the dirty air and wouldn’t be able to get to us.”
Earnhardt was right.
Keselowski, who led a race-high 95 laps, said he found himself in a difficult situation: He didn’t believe his engine would make it to the finish without a quick fix.
“It was definitely a mistake because the engine made it, but it probably shouldn’t have,” he said. “It was one of those deals, I think I was going to get passed because I was really down on power down the straightaway.”
Kurt Busch finished third, pole-winner Denny Hamlin was fourth and rookie Kyle Larson was fifth. Jeff Gordon, who finished eighth, reclaimed the series points lead and leads Matt Kenseth by 16 points.
Letarte said he didn’t believe the No. 88 was the best car, but had lost races under similar uncontrollable circumstances and was pleased to win one in that fashion.
“In the end you have to make it 400 miles. It’s not a 395-mile race. Earlier in the race, we had paper on our grille, had to fall back. Luckily, the timing of that was about Lap 5 or 6 of the race so it didn’t really affect the outcome,” he said.
“It’s a lot like the concrete last week (at Dover) and when you have tire issues at places or whatever it may be, there’s adversity thrown at everyone, and that’s what makes racing one of the cool, true reality TV (shows) in the world.
“No one really has any idea how it’s going to end up.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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