Race Capsule: Earnhardt Jr. prevails and sweeps Pocono in close finish
Flag to Flag: The strong and the weak are really taking form in the second half of the 2014 season - just guess which side Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on. The No. 88 Michael Baker International Chevy wasn't the car to beat most of Sunday's GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway, but when crunch time arrived it was in the right place to pounce. This storyline is similar to Earnhardt Jr.'s victory in the June Pocono race, when eventual runner-up Brad Keselowski swerved to get trash off his grille and Earnhardt Jr. drove by him to win on the last lap. This race was a bumpy road in the opening stage. Keselowski (23rd) almost lost the handle on his No. 2 Ford on lap 2, twitching up and barely into No. 11 Denny Hamlin (9th), but both cars moved on with little consequence. Lap 10 saw Jimmie Johnson (39th) cut a tire and scraped the wall, bringing out the first caution. Johnson would lose a lap, gain it back when Danica Patrick (30th) would have the same problem (while her in-car camera was on ESPN no less) on lap 17. Johnson would later go on to blow another tire and crash out of the race on lap 111. Lap 23 saw Kyle Busch (42nd) lose an engine and retire, followed by Landon Cassill's (41st) crash that ended his day on lap 30. Rookie Kyle Larson (11th) started on the pole for the first time in his Cup career and hung in the top 5 early on, but ceded the lead on lap 1 to former Pocono winner and outside pole-sitter Joey Logano (3rd), who lead the first 30 laps. Pit stops shuffled the order many-a-time through the race with Jeff Gordon (6th) leading the most laps of the day day at 60. Kurt Busch (13th) led three times for 30 laps, but lost a few spots toward the end of the race and bumped the wall to bring out the final caution with six laps to go. Greg Biffle (5th) led through the yellow brought out by A.J. Allmendinger's (34th) damaged Chevy on lap 140. But three laps into the restart, Earnhardt Jr. sailed past Biffle's 3M Ford and into the lead for the final 14 laps. The No. 88 crew was more than jubilant after their 3rd win of the season - the win being of more importance as Hendrick Motorsports announced this week that Chase Elliott's Nationwide Series crew chief Greg Ives will replace Steve Letarte next season, as Letarte departs for the NBC NASCAR broadcasting booth. The strangest moment of the race occurred on lap 118, just the 2nd lap after a restart. Hamlin got squirrely in front of a pack of cars just outside the top 10, causing Brian Vickers (37th) to check up and swerve. That wadded up a total of 13 cars, including Matt Kenseth (38th), Keselowski, Allmendinger, Martin Truex Jr. (32nd), Kevin Harvick (2nd), Aric Almirola (35th), Justin Allgaier (16th), Michael Annett (22nd), and Carl Edwards (29th). The jumble of cars sent Tony Stewart (37th) airborne and onto Paul Menard's (33rd) ride. As the race wore on, pit strategy and fuel stretching were the name of the game for most of the field. When Earnhardt Jr. took the lead with 14 laps to go, he seemed to have the race in hand, when suddenly the No. 4 of Harvick - keep in mind he got collected in that lap 118 crash - shot out of the pack and started chasing down the No. 88. Harvick , who was also chasing his 3rd win of the year, seemed to have a run on him as they took the white flag, but Earnhardt Jr. pulled away and sent Junior Nation into a frenzy. The rest of the top 10 were Logano, Clint Bowyer, Biffle, Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Ryan Newman, Hamlin, and Kasey Kahne. Earnhardt Jr.'s win was the 22nd of his career and nets him another three bonus points for the first round of the Chase. Gordon leads Earnhardt Jr. in the standings by 17 points - they are the breakaway drivers, as Keselowski in 3rd trails Gordon by 70. Earnhardt Jr. joins Keselowski and Johnson in the "Three Win Club", so as of now they would share the Chase standings lead. The winless drivers that would be part of the Sweet 16 in the Chase are Kenseth (4th in points), Newman (5th), Bowyer (9th), Larson (12th), and Biffle (13th). Kahne and rookie Austin Dillon sit one and two points respectively out of the top 13. Hamlin, Almirola, and Ku. Busch each have a win and sit 21st-23rd in points, well ahead of the 30th-place minimum for drivers to make the Chase. As the battle for the bottom of the Chase standings very much heats up, Earnhardt Jr. gets to comfortably race for wins and is having his best season since his six-win campaign in 2004.
RaceTweet: Earnhardt Jr. makes the late pass for the Pocono sweep, ahead of comeback kid Harvick. Johnson scores 3rd DNF in four races.
Handsome Boy Modeling School Stud of the Race: Jeff Gordon - Gordon gets the nod here not just for leading the most laps at Pocono, but for being a factor all day after winning his 5th Brickyard 400 the race before. The current points leader isn't showing his age (he's 43 today) at all and is shaping up to be one of the main hurdles for any driver vying for the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. By the way, take out Gordon's finishes of 26th at New Hampshire and 39th at Talladega and all of his 2014 finishes are in the top 15. That's a great testament to Alan Gustafson, the No. 24 crew, and to Gordon.
North Korean Missile Dud of the Race: Tony Stewart - He led 24 laps in the June Pocono race, before pit road speeding took him out of contention. His speed in the spring race made him a dark horse favorite to get his season back on track. Unfortunately, Stewart was never much of a front runner and then got taken out in that massive lap 118 crash, where his No. 14 landed on the No. 27 of Paul Menard. He's now 19th in points with zero wins, only six tops tens, and is 33 points behind 13th-in-points Greg Biffle, who is the lowest-ranked winless driver inside the Chase threshold.
Never Fear, Underdog is Here: Ryan Truex - The rookie Truex has been mostly invisible in 2014, driving in the largely underfunded BK Racing No. 83 Toyota. His 20th-place effort Sunday was not the best by an underfunded team (Casey Mears was 12th, rookie Justin Allgaier 16th, David Gilliland 17th, David Ragan 19th), but it was Truex's best of the season and of his career. Truex was one lap down at the checkered flag, making Sunday his first career race where he didn't finish multiple laps down. Sunday was not just his first-ever top 20, but his first top 30. And to further put into perspective the tough existence when inexperience and bad equipment combine, Truex is the lowest-ranked Cup Series driver who has attempted every race (he's DNQ'd three times in 2014), sitting 37th in the standings and a whopping 88 points behind teammate and fellow rookie Alex Bowman. So, to say that Truex's finish Sunday wasn't impressive is just not true. Here's to better days ahead for Martin's younger brother.
Wheel of Misfortune: Danica Patrick - Her day was going swell after a 10th-place starting spot when POP - a blown tire sent the No. 10 Chevy into the outside wall on lap 17. She got a free pass on lap 30, but ended the day four laps down in 30th. Sometimes she makes her own drama and mistakes, but people forget that sometimes she has had some rotten luck ruin some potentially pretty good runs. This was one of them.
You Can Comeback, But You Can't Stay Here: Kevin Harvick - Easy. Harvick got nosed into the inside wall on the lap 118 melee and should have been a non-factor the rest of the day. But superb repairs by his Rodney Childers-led crew, a late caution, and some pit strategy put Harvick in position to chase down Earnhardt Jr. and almost get the win in the closing laps. Harvick has had a strange year, but almost always has been fast. Watch out.
Ghost Driver: Ryan Newman - He has only eight top 10s and one of them was his 8th-place run Sunday. Newman has been mostly invisible in 2014, having led only 10 laps. He has only two top 5s and no wins, but is 5th in points, with the series' 5th-best average finish of 13.6. Newman's numbers may not translate well in the playoffs, but remember that Earnhardt Jr. would have won last year's Chase and he had zero wins. Consistency still does pay off.
Head-Scratcher Crown of Thorns: Parity. For all the talk about Jimmie Johnson or Hendrick Motorsports dominating the Sprint Cup Series in 2014, the stats don't completely back that up. Gordon and Earnhardt Jr. lead the standings and each have 15 top 10s a piece. Kenseth, meanwhile, is the only driver with 13, with Johnson holding 12, Logano 11, and Keselowski and Harvick 10 each. Not bad, right? But considering there now have been 21 points races, even the drivers that are fast each week (like Harvick, Keselowski, and Logano) have barely scored top 10s in half the races. There are three drivers with three wins, four with two, and four with one. Only Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon have average finishes less than 10 (9.8 and 9.0, respectively). And just 34 points separate 5th-in-the-standings Newman from 11th-place Harvick. All this shows that even though there is a big gap between the rich and the poor in the Cup Series and there is almost zero middle class teams, the top teams are all splitting the spoils fairly evenly. Just right now, Hendrick Motorsports is taking a lot of wins.
Georgia On My Mind: The biggest Georgia driver story of the week is the injury to John Wes Townley. Townley wrecked in ARCA Series qualifying Friday, told an official he felt a pop in his neck, and then was hospitalized. He's since gotten out of the hospital, but had to sit out the weekend's ARCA and Camping World Truck Series races at Pocono and will be evaluated again, before NASCAR decides whether to let him race this coming weekend. Without Townley, the NCWTS race had zero Georgia drivers and Austin Dillon went to Victory Lane. Saturday night's Nationwide Series race saw Brad Keselowski do the cross-country double-dip at Iowa Speedway and win ahead of 8th-place Chase Elliott and 20th-place Ryan Sieg. Elliott lost two points to teammate Regan Smith, but still leads him in the standings by two. The Sprint Cup race at Pocono saw David Ragan drive from a poor 39th starting position, avoid the wrecks, and finish a lap down in 19th. Reed Sorenson started 35th, stayed out of trouble, and finished 27th.