Monday, April 23, 2018
Sports

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finishes Pocono sweep

LONG POND, Pa. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. traded hats, waited for his cue and flashed three fingers for the cameras.

That's one for every win.

This time in Victory Lane at the Gobowling.com 400, Earnhardt hoisted a broom high over his head after completing a season sweep at Pocono Raceway, the third win in a season that has served as a career renaissance for NASCAR's most popular driver.

Earnhardt now holds the No. 1 seed in the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship.

Can he keep the momentum headed into NASCAR's playoffs?

"You're the broadcaster," Earnhardt teased crew chief Steve Letarte about that question.

"You don't," the departing Letarte said. "You're too far from the Chase."

The legion of Junior Nation fans roared when Earnhardt stormed into the lead with 14 laps left and again when he drove away off of a final restart with three laps. In addition to both Pocono races, he also won the Daytona 500 in February.

Earnhardt held off the hard-charging Kevin Harvick to become the first driver to sweep both Pocono races since Denny Hamlin in 2006.

His Twitter post last week when he landed in Pocono read: "Lookin for a broom."

Earnhardt also became the fifth straight Hendrick Motorsports driver to win at Pocono. Owner Rick Hendrick was not at the race, though he did talk to his winning driver on the phone on pit road.

"I told him thanks for believing in me and making my life better," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt's sweep followed Kasey Kahne and Jimmie Johnson last year and Jeff Gordon in the August 2012 race.

Earnhardt has his most wins since he won six times in 2004. His three wins are one shy of his combined total from 2005-13. His win Sunday was the 22nd of a career still without a Cup championship.

"We had a fast car all day," Earnhardt said. "Steve's strategy was perfect at the end. I don't know if anyone knew what was going on there, but it was pretty awesome."

Earnhardt said before the race his No. 88 Chevrolet was better than his winner in June. He had a bit of luck in his first win when debris slowed race leader Brad Keselowski. On Sunday, no one could touch Earnhardt over the final 14 laps.

"We were determined to go home from the last win and improve the car," he said.

Earnhardt and Letarte are clicking in their final season together. Hendrick Motorsports named Greg Ives the crew chief for 2015 once Letarte heads to the broadcast booth.

"I think he's going to make me look bad," Letarte said. "Mr. Hendrick has a remarkable talent of matching drivers with crew chiefs."

Harvick, who clinched a spot in the Chase, was second, followed by Joey Logano.

Gordon led a race-high 63 laps and surpassed 24,000 career laps led. He still holds a 17-point lead over Earnhardt, but Earnhardt would have the No. 1 seed because he has the most points among three-time winners.

Hamlin triggered a 13-car wreck with 43 laps after he got sideways coming out of a turn. Brian Vickers tried to avoid Hamlin and slammed into Matt Kenseth to send cars all over the track. The pileup looked like a "Big One" straight out of Talladega or Daytona, with smoking, dented and destroyed cars littering the track. Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet rested atop Paul Menard's No. 27 Chevy.

Gearhead stats

Winner's average speed: 127.411 mph

Time of race: 3 hours, 8 minutes, 22 seconds

Margin of victory: 0.228 seconds

Caution flags: Eight for 35 laps

Lead changes: 15 among 10 drivers

Lap leaders: Logano 1-30; Ku.Busch 31-43; Gordon 44-64; Ku.Busch 65-74; Allmendinger 75-76; Almirola 77; Gilliland 78; Gordon 79-94; Harvick 95; Ku.Busch 96-102; Kenseth 103-105; Gordon 106-131; Harvick 132-135; Biffle 136-146; Earnhardt Jr. 147-160

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