A MORE HALE DALE
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was refreshing to feel some speed in his No. 88 Chevrolet.
Earnhardt couldn’t match the dominating Chevy of Jimmie Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports shop mate, but after a lackluster performance last Sunday at Dover, he was glad to post a third-place result in Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400 at Pocono Raceway. It was the first top five for Earnhardt since he ran second to Kyle Busch on March 24 at Fontana, Calif.
Arguably, Earnhardt had the second-best car at Pocono, but restarting from the inside lane with four laps left hurt his chances of holding the runner-up position.
“We’ve been running good all year, just have had some troubles,” Earnhardt said after the race. “Excited to be able to run well. We had a good car all weekend — glad we could get a good finish.
“Jimmie was faster in Turn 3, much faster. That’s where you have to be good. That’s where he was good. We’ve got to gain a little bit there. We know some things we can try to get better before we come back (Aug. 4).”
Earnhardt has never won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono, but he has scored four top 10s in his last five starts at the trioval.
MORE PROGRESS FOR STEWART-HAAS
Tony Stewart got his third straight top 10. Ryan Newman parlayed an off-sequence pit stop strategy into a fifth-place finish. Danica Patrick made a bid for a top-20 result before falling back to 29th at the finish. Overall, it was another strong performance from Stewart-Haas Racing, which seems to have turned a corner over the last three weeks.
“Definitely progress, for sure,” said Stewart, who followed his win last Sunday at Dover with a fourth in the Party in the Poconos 400. “It’s one thing if one car runs good, but to have two or three of us running good shows that we are gaining momentum.
“It’s not just one team. The whole organization is gaining momentum.”
Race winner Jimmie Johnson and third-place Dale Earnhardt Jr., along with Stewart and Newman, all had Hendrick Motorsports engines under their hoods.
HAMLIN’S UPHILL BATTLE
On the surface, Denny Hamlin had a pretty good day. He finished eighth and moved one spot closer to 20th in the standings (25th). On the flip side, Hamlin is now two points farther out of the 20th spot than he was when the day started.
Hamlin is 76 points behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in 20th, a deficit he must erase in the next 12 races to be eligible for a wild card spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Hamlin, who missed four events with a compression fracture of his first lumbar vertebra, also must win at least one race, probably two.
At Pocono, Hamlin was down on horsepower with his engine tuned more toward reliability and less toward peak performance than it had been in prior races.
“It was a tough day,” he said. “It’s about where I thought we would end up, but we need wins, and we’re going to have to be aggressive and do everything we can to do that.”
On a day when power was an issue, Hamlin’s pit crew stepped forward.
“They picked me up five spots on that last stop, and that’s incredible,” Hamlin said. “They’re keeping us in it, and hopefully we’ll get us a win (at Michigan) next week.”