LONG POND, Pa. – A fast car and some good fortune helped Dale Earnhardt Jr. visit Victory Lane at Pocono Raceway on Sunday.
Only Brad Keselowski stood between Earnhardt and the checkered flag as the laps wound down in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ Pocono 400.
Earnhardt had finished second to Keselowski three times in his career. A piece of paper on Keselowski’s grille, which overheated his engine, helped make sure the tally didn’t reach four.
Still, it took a gutsy move in the final laps for Earnhardt to grab the top spot. Keselowski tried to draft Danica Patrick to remove the paper on his grille and cool his engine in the race’s closing stages.
Earnhardt took full advantage.
He drove inside both Keselowski and Patrick, seized the lead with five laps to go and never looked back en route to his second victory of the season and the 21st of his Sprint Cup career.
The 39-year-old Hendrick Motorsports driver posted three runner-up finishes between his win in February’s Daytona 500 and what was his first career win at Pocono. Earnhardt’s win was the fourth in a row at Pocono, all by different Hendrick drivers: Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt.
Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and rookie Kyle Larson rounded out the top five.
“(Keselowski) had me beat, I couldn’t get to him (before his engine overheated),” Earnhardt said. “It’s hard to pass here. But I’ve lost some in some strange ways, so it feels good to win one like that. We all have to thank our team when we win, but when I talk about my team, I really mean it.”
Earnhardt had plenty to be thankful for on Sunday. Just when it looked like he was forced to settle for what would’ve been his ninth runner-up result in a year and a half, Earnhardt’s No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet SS caught a break.
He’d been passed for the win – ironically, by Keselowski – on the last lap at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March when Earnhardt ran out of fuel. He lost the lead with less than two laps left at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway when Kevin Harvick passed him.
There was no catching Earnhardt when it mattered on Sunday.
Keselowski was left to ponder what could’ve been had he not gotten debris on his grille, a fate worse than when Earnhardt had the same thing happen early in the race but with no consequence.
“The car was really hot, I just got a really big piece of debris on it,” said Keselowski, who led a race-high 95 laps to Earnhardt’s 11. “It was blowing up. We had a really good car. Dale and I were pretty equal. He made the right move.”
Earnhardt weaved up and down the track in the final two laps in a successful attempt to break the draft.
“He didn’t want to let me by but I don’t think his motor was going to make it,” the Mooresville, N.C. native said.
Johnson, who was seeking his third straight win, finished sixth. Ryan Newman, series point leader Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray completed the top 10.
Earnhardt’s victory assures him of a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the fourth straight year.
He leaves Pocono as the top-seeded driver, based on most points among the drivers who have two wins: Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt and Joey Logano.
“I’ve never won here,” Earnhardt said.
“This is amazing. I can mark this one off.”