Earnhardt Jr. wins at Pocono for the first time

 

The Sports Network

Long Pond, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. passed Brad Keselowski for the lead with just five laps to go and then held off Keselowski at the finish to win Sunday's Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.

It's the first time that Earnhardt has won a Sprint Cup Series race at this 2.5-mile triangle-shaped track, coming in his 29th start. He also claimed his second victory of the season and the 21st of his career in the series. Earnhardt began the season by winning the Feb. 23 Daytona 500.

Prior to his win at Pocono, Earnhardt had finished second here two times (July 2001 and August 2007).

"I just wanted to win at Pocono," Earnhardt said. "I've never won here, and I've come so close, and we've had so many opportunities slip away. It feels good to finally get to victory lane here. I really enjoy racing here, and I used to come here as a kid because it was a summer race."

This is Earnhardt's first multiple-win season since 2004 when he scored six victories while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Earnhardt has been behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports since the start of the 2008 season.

Keselowski dominated most of this race by leading 95 of 160 laps, but he experienced overheating issues in the closing laps when a piece of trash got stuck on his front grille. The loss of momentum for Keselowski allowed Earnhardt to chase him down and then eventually make the winning pass.

"He didn't want to let me by, but I don't know if his motor was going to make it," Earnhardt said of Keselowski's overheating problem. "That is unfortunate for him. He had me beat. I couldn't get to him. Just real hard to pass here. But I have lost some in some strange ways, so it feels good to win one like that."

Keselowski crossed the finish line 0.4 seconds behind Earnhardt.

"I was trying to do something to help my car out," Keselowski said. "I knew it was going to break and I was going to get passed, so I was trying to make whatever move I could do to help clean it off. I'm not sure I did enough to make a difference.

"But I made enough of a difference to lose the lead in the process. I thought I had enough of a cushion, and when I got down in the corner and the car in front of me [Danica Patrick] got sideways, I realized I had made a mistake."

Earnhardt led just 11 laps.

With two wins to his credit now during the 26-race regular season, Earnhardt is guaranteed of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. As long as he is in the top-30 in points after the Sept. 6 event at Richmond and attempts to qualify for every race during the regular season, he will clinch a spot in the Chase. Earnhardt jumped from fifth to third in the point standings. He is 22 points behind leader and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who finished eighth.

"Our group has been working together for quite some years now, and each year, we saw a progression in performance, and we've seen ourselves get better each year," Earnhardt said.

Hendrick now has four wins in a row at Pocono. Gordon won here for a record sixth time in August 2012. Jimmie Johnson scored the victory at this track one year ago, and Kasey Kahne took the checkered flag here 10 months ago.

Kurt Busch finished third, followed by Denny Hamlin, the pole sitter, and rookie Kyle Larson. Johnson, who had won the last two races (Charlotte and Dover), placed sixth.

During a round of pit stops under caution midway through the race, Johnson made contact with Marcos Ambrose and spun around on pit road. Johnson made multiple stops during the caution for repairs, which dropped him to 29th for the restart.

"The No. 9 [Ambrose] was coming into his pit stall, and I was going out," Johnson said. "Chad [Knaus, crew chief for Johnson] thought he was on his way out. He told me there were two out there, but I didn't know the No. 9 was trying to get in and made contact.

"I don't know who it is on the No. 51 car [Allgaier], but God was looking out for him today. My car somehow pivoted around that right-front tire changer and carrier, and I didn't hit those guys. I was scared to death I was going to hurt someone. From there, we just went to work and did what the No. 48 [team] does best and grind it out."

Kahne, who hasn't won a race since last August at Pocono, was involved an incident with Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards in turn 2 with less than 20 laps to go. Edwards and Kahne crashed into the wall, while Busch continued on to finish 12th.

"I was side-by-side with Kyle, so he was able to get a good draft down the straightaway," Kahne said. "We got to turn 1, and I was on the outside, and then he knew if he didn't clear me there then I would pass him back because I just had. He just floored it and didn't care there was someone out there and ran me right in the wall."

Tony Stewart led a total of 24 laps but was slapped with a pit road speeding penalty while running in the top spot on lap 119. Stewart fell to 27th at the time. He wound up finishing 13th.

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