Dale Earnhardt Jr. will always be the most scrutinized driver in the Sprint Cup Series because his father just happened to be one of the greatest drivers in the history of the sport.
His famous father, the late Dale Sr., was only the second driver in the history of the sport to become a seven-time series champion, and it was that success that made him the poster boy for all of NASCAR for much of his career.
Dale Jr. has not approached the on-track success experienced by his father, but it would be hard not to argue that he has surpassed him in his role as NASCAR’s poster boy. Since the green flag waved at Daytona in February, Junior has been putting together the kind of season that has made him one of the drivers to beat once the Chase gets underway in September.
Junior went into Sunday’s race at Pocono as one of the favorites as he took the first checkered flag of the season at the track earlier in the summer. That win came after Brad Keselowski had some paper stick to the front of his grill in the closing laps that allowed Junior to make the pass to go on and claim his second win of the season.
Junior’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, took the winning car home from that first Pocono race, but instead of putting on another coat of wax and covering it up, he and his crew went to work improving the car before the series returned for the second Pocono race. When they arrived at the track and unloaded the car, it was evident to both Earnhardt and Letarte that the car was better than what they left with after the first race.
Even though he had one of the best cars all day long on Sunday, the race was like every other race on the schedule, as it was all about track position. His teammate Jeff Gordon may have had the best car on the day, but this win actually had more to do with the calls being made on the top of the pit box than what took place on the track.
Pocono’s huge two-and-a-halfmile track forces crew chiefs to begin figuring out when they need to make their last stop of the day as soon as the green flag waves to begin the race. Crew chiefs must do all they can during early pit stops to make sure that their driver has the track position he needs when it is time for the last round of pit stops.
Letarte’s strategy for the end of the race had him bring his driver down pit road with 39 laps to go to take on four tires and gas. Five laps later, a 13-car wreck took place, taking much of the field out of contention and in the process allowed teams to save some fuel during the caution laps.
Letarte brought Junior onto pit road for the last time with 29 laps to go for a splash of gas while many of his competitors came in for four tires and fuel. The lightning quick pit stop gained him valuable track position, as he eventually took the lead away from Greg Biffle with 14 laps to go. It was the first time that Junior had been in the lead, but once there he led the remaining laps and held off Kevin Harvick for his third win of the season. That ties him with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for the most wins.
Junior’s three wins combined with his second place in the point standings puts him atop the Chase grid, with Keselowski second and Johnson third. Points leader Jeff Gordon, who has two wins, sits in fourth.
PIT NOTES: Roush-Fenway Racing announced last week that it was bringing back Mark Martin to become the organization’s driver development coach. Martin was the first driver hired for Roush back in 1988 when he started competing at the Cup level. He was the cornerstone for what Roush has accomplished in the sport and no doubt will be a welcome addition to Roush’s youth movement.
Event: Cheez-It 335 at the Glen
Track: Watkins Glen International (2.45-mile road course, 11 turns)
Date: Aug. 10, 1 p.m.
Defending Champion: Kyle Busch