Letarte Sets Strategy Course for Earnhardt Jr.'s Second Pocono Raceway Victory
LONG POND, Pa. - Amid a sea of varying NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race strategies, veteran Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte charted a course that enabled Dale Earnhardt Jr., to sail to a Pocono Raceway victory that closed out his second career single-season, two-race track win sweep.
"I can't believe we swept Pocono," Earnhardt Jr., said after charting his third victory, 10th top-five and 15th top-10 finish through 21 series events this season. "We had a fast car all day and Steve Letarte's strategy was perfect at the end."
Earnhardt Jr., completed a 19-second comeback in the closing 20 of 160 laps and guided his No. 88 beneath the checkered flag 0.229 of a second ahead of Kevin Harvick in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing car.
Letarte's calls on two late-race green-flag pit stops set the victory up. He called for a four-tire stop on Lap 121 and a fuel-only stop 10 laps later. The No. 88 Team next benefited from a Lap 140 caution that bunched the field and allowed Earnhardt Jr., to erase his half-lap deficit to Roush Fenway Racing event leader Greg Biffle.
Earnhardt Jr., cashed in on the opportunistic circumstances by wheeling the No. 88 past Biffle's No. 16 at the entrance of Turn 2 on Lap 147. Earnhardt Jr., cleared the day's final hurdle by outracing Harvick off a restart with three laps remaining and holding the No. 4. Team Penske's Joey Logano placed third, Michael Watrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer snared fourth and Biffle completed the top five.
"I was just trying to hold them off. They were faster, " Earnhardt Jr., said after closing out his first single-season, two-race track victory sweep since 2002 at Talladega Superspeedway. "My car, I was overdriving it. It wasn't rolling the center (of the corner) very good and Kevin was getting me in Turn 1 and Turn 2, but I knew I had the Tunnel Turn figured out.
"I don't know if anybody knew what was going on (with varying strategies), but that was awesome," Earnhardt Jr., said. "It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do and take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off and sometimes they don't."
The victory marks Earnhardt Jr.'s 22nd series victory through 526 starts and moves him to first position on the 16-driver grid for the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race off that begins Sept. 14 at Chicagoland Speedway. He's also within 17-points of championship leader Jeff Gordon, who scored his second straight and 15th top-10 finish of the season with a sixth-place Pocono effort.
Harvick delivered his fourth second-place finish of the season after rebounding from a Lap 97 pass-through penalty after speeding off pit road on Lap 96 and being sent to the tail end of the longest line on Lap 126 after pitting before pit road was officially open on Lap 117.
"I made a lot of mistakes today and they (No. 4 team) made up for it with a fast racecar," Harvick said.
He ranks seventh on the current Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series grid. He sits 11th and 149 points behind Gordon in the series championship standings.
NASCAR racing returns to Kentucky Speedway Sept. 20 with the Nationwide Series VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300. The speedway's final 2014 race weekend opens with the Sept. 19 ARCA Racing Series (ARS) Zloop 150.
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