NASCAR at Pocono 2014: Winners and Losers from the Pocono 400
Rejoice! There is great joy in Junior Nation!
His was not the best car, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. had his No. 88 Chevrolet SS in the right place (he was second) as a dominant Brad Keselowski had to relinquish the race lead when a piece of paper blocked the cool air flow into his engine.
“Well he didn’t want to let me by, but I don’t know if his motor was going to make it,” said Earnhardt Jr. while being interviewed in Victory Lane. “That is unfortunate for him. He had me beat. I couldn’t get to him.”
Earnhardt Jr. had come close to winning at Pocono several times, but usually, a similarly strange occurrence would rob him of the win at the last minute. Sunday, the stars aligned in his favor.
Several drivers had bad days, either caused by wrecks on the track or, in Jimmie Johnson’s case, on pit road.
Earnhardt Jr.’s win places him on an exclusive list of four drivers who have won more than one race this season (Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson are the others).
With the Sprint Cup Series at its halfway point of the regular season, the discussion revolving around 16 winners seems moot. It’s likely we’ll see more multiple wins than new winners going forward, as the good teams get themselves ready for the start of the Chase, a mere three months away.
A look now at the winners and losers from the Pocono 400.
Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
These two men have a great relationship away from the race track, sharing time together. That bond shows in how the Steve Letarte-led Hendrick Motorsports squad handles its wins, as well as its defeats.
“Well I just love winning with these guys. Wins aren’t really anything unless you can enjoy it with good people,” said Earnhardt Jr. in the post-race press conference. “Without good people around, there is not much to them (races).”
After this team won the season-opening race at Daytona, it was expected that multiple wins would come quickly. Obviously, they did not. It’s not that the No. 88 team was running poorly. Its execution on most weekends was equal to the winning team.
It’s just very difficult to win at this level.
Throughout his team’s ups and downs, Earnhardt Jr. kept his cool, thanks to crew chief Letarte’s laid-back attitude instilled in the team from the start of the season.
“I’m having the best time of my life,” said Earnhardt Jr. “I think the rest of the crew could say the same. Steve has got to be enjoying himself this year. We have worked to get to this point to be in position to win races.”
Next week is the Sprint Cup Series at Michigan, a track where Junior has won twice (2008, 2012), has six top fives and 10 top 10s.
Wins give rise to wins in this series and it's not too far-fetched to be thinking about two in a row for the No. 88 team.
Loser: Brad Keselowski
Bad Brad’s No. 2 Ford was the car to beat all weekend at Pocono.
Although he didn’t win the pole (he started from the outside of the front row), it was clear from the drop of the green flag that the Team Penske driver was the man to beat. He led 95 of 160 laps.
He ended up getting beat himself, by an errant piece of paper which stuck to the front of his Ford Fusion, blocking the cool air necessary to keep his engine running smoothly.
With his engine running abnormally hot, Keselowski did the only thing he could do, and that was to relinquish the race lead so that he could use the natural vacuum created at the back of the race car to pull the debris off the front of his car.
“You know, we were just running really hot and the motor was going to blow up, so I had to do something, so I tried to follow the 10 (Danica Patrick) down in the corner to get the debris off and I just checked up too much,” said Keselowski during the live broadcast. “I thought I had more room than I did. The team did a heck of a job, 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.”
This Paul Wolfe-led team has been inconsistent since Keselowski’s win at Las Vegas in March. It has been struggling to find the sweet spot in the No. 2 Ford. If these past two weeks are any indication, they may have found it.
Winner: Jimmie Johnson and the 48 Team
The No. 48 Lowe’s team wasn’t about to let a minor pit-road mishap ruin their day.
At the conclusion of a two-tire pit stop, Jimmie Johnson was being spotted by crew chief Chad Knaus, who didn’t see the No. 9 car of Marco Ambrose coming down pit road. So as Knaus is yelling, “Go, go, go,” Ambrose was pulling into his pit stall. Johnson hit Ambrose, causing minor damage to both cars. Knaus was not expecting Ambrose, as he thought the Petty Motorsports driver had already been serviced and left his pit stall.
“So it was just confusion on pit road," Johnson said during the live broadcast. "I feel terrible for the No. 9 guys and hurting their race car and taking them out of a good day. It hurt our race car, too.”
Johnson’s pit-road incident put him deep in the field. But in typical Chad Knaus fashion, a two-tire pit stop returned Johnson to the front to race among the leaders.
“We had some aero stuff to sort out,” said Johnson in a post-race interview. “After the second pit stop working on it, the car was a lot better. I honestly forgot about it until I felt like we had a shot to win.”
There was no three-in-a-row victory celebration after Pocono, but the No. 48 team does get extra credit for the excellent repair job, returning Johnson and his Chevrolet SS to competitive form.
Loser: Tony Stewart
Two-time Pocono winner Tony Stewart led 24 laps and for a while made it look like he would be a three-time winner.
Then, a pit-road speeding penalty ended all hopes the driver-owner may have had of winning.
“100 percent driver error,” said Stewart during a post-race television interview. “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 (tachometer) so I had no clue that I was over it.
“It was 100 percent driver error.”
As the television cameras were rolling live, Stewart continued his self-flogging.
“I gave my guys grief last week with a sixth-place run (I) thought we should run in the top three and then I threw it away this week. Had an awesome Mobil 1 Chevy all day, from Friday through Sunday. So a great race just lost by the driver (who) screwed it up this week.”
Stewart will take his search for a win to Michigan next weekend. Of the big-name drivers yet to win a race this season, Stewart has to be considered among the one or two that can do it.
Winner: Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson’s amazing rookie season in the Cup Series continued on Sunday as he scored a fifth-place finish at Pocono, a track he’d never been to until race week.
Team owner Chip Ganassi had the young Californian compete in Saturday’s ARCA Series race, just so that he could get a feel for the track’s three unique turns. He also had the opportunity to experience the mini-draft created at Pocono.
With his car prepared as if it were a Cup car, Larson used his superior equipment to easily win the ARCA race.
On Sunday, Larson used his experience to run with the race leaders all afternoon.
In his post-race interview, Larson admitted that in the closing laps of the race, his Target Chevrolet SS was better than fourth-place finisher and pole-winner Denny Hamlin, who used his experience to keep the rookie behind him.
“That was a lot better finish than I thought we were going to have today,” said Larson. “I thought after Happy Hour we would have a 15th-place car. I knew from the drop of the green we had a really good Target Chevy.
“On that last run I was really good. A top five here at the ‘Tricky Triangle,' and a win yesterday in the ARCA series...so I guess you couldn’t ask for a better weekend.”
Loser: Kevin Harvick
After sitting atop the scoring sheets at the conclusion of Saturday's "Happy Hour" final practice session, Kevin Harvick was poised to make Pocono the scene of his third victory of the 2014 season.
The Stewart-Haas Racing driver had his expectations for a win shattered when he lost a right front tire entering Pocono Raceway’s famous “Tunnel Turn.”
He brought his wounded No. 4 Budweiser Chevrolet SS onto pit road, only to have another tire fail just a few laps later.
Understandably, Harvick was disappointed with his day and had nothing to say to the media, or anyone, following the race.
Can you blame him?
Winner: Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. has been having a tough time getting adjusted to his new race team. He’s also been struggling with an ill-handling race car that doesn’t want to respond like those he has driven in the past.
Directed by veteran crew chief Todd Berrier, the Denver, Colorado-based Furniture Row Racing team has been trying to return to the form that saw it put Kurt Busch into last year’s Chase.
After scoring his second top 10 in a row, the New Jersey-born driver was optimistic.
“All in all, we’re gaining on it,” he said in a televised post-race interview. “Finishing with a top 10 after a tough weekend is a good sign for our Furniture Row Racing team. We learned a lot here and hopefully it will help us in the future. We’re gaining but still have a ways to get to where we want to be.”
Loser: Carl Edwards
In the midst of what appeared to be a very strong outing for Carl Edwards, the Roush Fenway Racing driver’s day came to an abrupt end when he hit Kasey Kahne.
“I saw Kasey hit the wall really hard and I tried to avoid it, but there was oil all over the track and I plowed into the back of him,” said Edwards in an interview after he had emerged from the infield care center. “Everyone did a good job of missing me, but man, Kasey hit hard. I hope he is alright.
“We will go get some Cheez-Its now and go watch the end of the race I guess.”
Edwards is struggling to break into the select group of drivers that have won more than one race this season—against the backdrop of the persistent rumors of his 2015 racing plans.
Incidentally, Kahne was also treated by the care center and declined to be interviewed.
Winner: NASCAR Fans and the New Chase Rules
Two months into the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season and racing pundits were convinced that NASCAR officials may have made a huge mistake with the new Chase qualifying rules.
Sixteen drivers weren’t going to be enough, given that a new face was being crowned the winner practically every week.
Now that the season has reached its halfway point and the teams that were expected to rise to the top (and maybe one or two that weren’t) have done so, 16 absolutely looks like the right number.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory on Sunday at Pocono made him the fourth member of the exclusive “multiple winners' club.” It also gave a reassuring nod to the number of Chase participants being set at 16.
Moving forward, expect to see more drivers joining the multiple winners’ club than we’ll see new winners. And it’s likely that one driver could win four races even before the Chase begins.
Winning is contagious and a feeling that isn’t easily forgotten by the teams that have already won in 2014.
*All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Follow me on Twitter: @BobMargolis
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