Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a few chances on a rash of late cautions during the end of the Party in the Poconos 400, but he didn’t have enough to overtake the dominant car of teammate Jimmie Johnson.
Earnhardt Jr. came home third and inched ever closer to that first victory on the Pennsylvania triangle. His finish on Sunday afternoon was his first top five at the track since 2008 and his first since finishing second at California in March. Having run top five all day, it was a finish the team needed after weeks of scratching and clawing for one.
“It is good for us to get a good run. We were counting on sort of rebounding,” said Earnhardt Jr. after the race. “We haven’t had a good last couple of months, cars haven’t been that fast, had some issues here and there.
“But it’s good to get a good solid full race in and finish where I felt like the car was capable of running, and we got a couple other tracks coming up. Hopefully we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably. But I feel the same way as Greg [Biffle, who finished second], we got a little work to do to get where some of the other guys are. But we’re pretty happy about today.”
With rain having washed out practice and qualifying Friday, Earnhardt Jr. started the day sixth. He ran amongst the leaders all afternoon, following in Johnson’s tire tracks for the second half of the event. Earnhardt Jr. knew that he didn’t have anything for Johnson, but said he had everyone else from fifth on back covered and wanted to make sure he finished where he should.
Pocono has been far from his best track, however. In 27 Pocono races he’s only earned one pole and 10 top 10 finishes. But he has a pair of second place finishes – 2001 and 2007 – and now a pair of third place finishes. And the driver he was chasing on Sunday is his teammate, giving Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 National Guard team the tools and resources to get better for the second Pocono race later in the year.
“Fortunate enough for me I get to be in the same shop as those guys. I get to lean on them and I get to know exactly what’s happening under the hood and I can learn and use that to my advantage,” Earnhardt Jr. said about his teammate, as well as praising them for having winning cars two weeks in a row.
“When it’s good for Jimmie, it’s equally as good for us in an indirect way and hopefully we can see what they did and come back to Pocono and try to improve on what we did today.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s performance, he failed to lead a lap, moved him back up into the top five in points. Next week the NSCS heads to Michigan where he’s the defending winner of the Quicken Loans 400. And he heads there, as last year, with momentum from a strong Pocono run.
“We ran well here last year, we’ve got a good package going to Pocono and going to Michigan – hopefully going to Michigan we’ve got a good package, when we get there we’ll see,” said Earnhardt Jr.
“But so far it’s been real similar to last year. We were strong here last year.”