By David Morgan, Associate Editor
When looking at Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s career in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on a year by year basis, there are certain seasons that stick out among the rest and the 2014 campaign was one of those for the 15-time Most Popular Driver.
After winning the season-opening Daytona 500 for the second time in his career, Earnhardt maintained a spot in the top-six in the points standings through the first 13 races of the year. Then came the first event at Pocono Raceway, where things were about to take an even more positive turn for the No. 88 team.
Late in the June running of the Pocono 400, it came down to two old friends, Earnhardt and Brad Keselowski, battling it out for the win.
Though Keselowski held onto the lead, the driver of the No. 2 Ford had debris on his grille that was causing engine temperatures to creep ever higher as the finish drew nearer. With a handful of laps to go, Keselowski closed in on Danica Patrick’s lapped machine and in an ill-advised move, tried to move in behind her in an effort to get the debris dislodged.
The move backfired for Keselowski, allowing Earnhardt to close the gap between them and pass him for the lead down the backstretch. Earnhardt held the lead for the final five laps en route to his second victory of the season.
“He didn’t want to let me by, but I don’t think his motor was going to make it,” Earnhardt said of the late race pass on Keselowski. “That’s unfortunate for him. He had me beat. I couldn’t get to him. Just real hard to pass here. I’ve lost some in some strange ways, so it feels good to win one like that.
“Brad definitely had the better car. I’m definitely owning up to that, but we won the race and we’re definitely going to enjoy it. It goes into the books and helps us toward the Chase. We were there all day, running great. We had a fast car, just never really got that track position until the end. You’ve got to be there, so we were and somebody had a mistake, so we capitalized.
“I’m really proud of my team. Especially Steve Letarte, this is his last year. I’ve never won here. I’ve always wanted to. This is amazing. I can mark this one off.”
While the June race was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, when the series returned in August, it was a much more dominant effort from Earnhardt and his team.
Using fuel strategy to vault into second place behind then leader Greg Biffle in the closing laps, a restart with 17 laps to go gave Earnhardt the opportunity he needed to pounce. Three laps later, Earnhardt made his move in the Tunnel Turn to get past Biffle into the lead.
As Earnhardt pulled away from the field showing the strength of his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, his three-second lead was erased with eight laps to go when the caution flag flew for Kurt Busch getting into the outside wall.
Three laps remained when the final restart came, with Kevin Harvick lining up alongside Earnhardt for the run to the finish.
Earnhardt got the jump on Harvick through Turn 1 after the restart, but the race was nowhere close to being decided just yet. Harvick stalked Earnhardt through each of Pocono’s three unique corners over those final three laps looking for a way by, but Earnhardt held steady in the lead, not allowing Harvick the opportunity to get past.
Harvick gave it his all, but Earnhardt was not to be denied as he stayed out front the entire way home to sweep the season at the Tricky Triangle.
“We had a fast car all day,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end. I don’t know if anybody knew what was going on, man, but that was pretty awesome. It takes a really, really smart guy to understand what to do to take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. I can’t believe we swept Pocono.
“We definitely went home from the last race and made our car better. That’s what I’m proud of this team for is that they went and they didn’t sit on what we did last time. They wanted to get better to be a faster car where we didn’t have to get a little luck to win.
Earnhardt went on to express his appreciation for his crew chief and the team as a whole, praising their efforts in being able to win the three races they had at that point in the season and positioning themselves as a championship contender down the stretch.
“I just feel real lucky to be able to have the opportunity to work with him and this whole crew,” Earnhardt added. “As good as Steve is and as awesome of a guy as he is, the whole crew is that deep. Everybody has got awesome personalities, everybody has got a great attitude.
“I can’t believe I fell into this group, man. I’m just the lucky guy that gets to drive for them. They’d be winning races regardless of who was driving the car. I’m just lucky to be a part of it.”
Earnhardt would win once more over the remaining races in the season, ultimately finishing eighth in the final points standings after being eliminated from the Playoffs in the second round.