LONG POND, Pa. A broom is not a typical prop used in NASCAR Victory Lane celebrations.
Yet it was a much-desired necessity Sunday after Dale Earnhardt Jr. became just the seventh driver to win both Cup series races at Pocono Raceway during the same season.
Earnhardt passed leader Greg Biffle with 13 of 160 laps remaining and held off a furious challenge from Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400.
The win is the third of the season for Earnhardt and, with five races remaining before the 16-driver Chase field is set, he would begin the 10-race championship battle as the No. 1 seed.
“We had a fast car all day. (Crew chief) Steve Letarte’s strategy was perfect at the end, and I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on, but that was pretty awesome,” said Earnhardt, who earned the 22nd series victory.
“It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do to take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don’t. I can’t believe we swept Pocono.”
Earnhardt and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team kicked off 2014 with a victory in the Daytona 500 and followed that up with second-place finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas.
Earnhardt was confident more wins would come.
They have. Two more in fact. But Pocono?
“You know, winning is hard to do. These races are so, so hard to win. The cars have come so far, and the competition and speed – it’s amazing what you’re out there up against,” Earnhardt said.
“So, I’m a little surprised on that front, but looking at our team and how we have grown and how we’ve continued to improve, this makes sense to me in how we’re running makes sense.
“It just seems a logical.”
Earnhardt started ninth and ran among the top 10 virtually the entire race.
Letarte brought Earnhardt down for fuel and tires during a caution on Lap 122 of 160. The race returned to green on Lap 127, but instead of waiting for another caution, Letarte had Earnhardt pit under green on Lap 131 – a two-second, fuel-only stop.
With enough fuel to reach the finish, Earnhardt remained on the track during the next caution and restarted fourth on Lap 144. He passed Biffle on Lap 147 for the lead and his only obstacle remaining was Harvick, who lined up in second alongside him on a restart with three laps left.
“With Kevin, I’m racing one of the best. That guy is going to get everything he can out of his car,” Earnhardt said. “I was just going to have to really get brave and drive it down in there (in Turn 1) and pray for it to stick.”
Harvick was an unexpected contender at the end of the race as he overcame a pit-road speeding penalty and damage from a 13-car wreck on Lap 117.
“Junior was a little bit better than I was in Turn 3, and I just had to kind of maintain there to just stay close,” Harvick said. “But I was going to need him to slip up in Turn 1 and try to get position in Turn 2. He didn’t.”
There was no Earnhardt win without the winning pit strategy, however.
“When you come to a track like Pocono, you have to be very creative with your strategy, the pit crew has to understand the strategy and execute it efficiently,” Letarte said.
“That’s why today was – it meant a lot to the whole group. They deserved to win races, they’re a great group of guys.”
Joey Logano finished third, Clint Bowyer was fourth and Greg Biffle ended up fifth. Series points leader Jeff Gordon led a race-high 63 laps and finished sixth.
Earnhardt’s win was also the fifth consecutive for a HMS driver at Pocono. Team owner Rick Hendrick owns 17 Cup wins on the 2.5-mile, triangle-shaped track.
Hendrick was not at the track Sunday but did speak to Earnhardt and Letarte by cell phone in Victory Lane.
“It’s all because of Rick. He just puts great people in the right places and he has a knack for what he is doing,” Earnhardt said of the call. “I wanted to thank him and make sure he understood how much I appreciated him even in this time where you kind of forget to thank everybody or you are just happy you won.”
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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