Richard Petty said it best when he said “The best you can do on any given day is put yourself in a position to win, then circumstances would dictate the outcome of the race.”
The King was the best at that, winning a Cup Series record 200 races and seven championships, tied for the most with Dale Earnhardt.
Some races are won when a driver whips the field like Jeff Burton did in 2000, leading all 300 laps on his way to a victory at New Hampshire. Other races have been won like Jamie McMurray in the 2010 Daytona 500 when he led two laps, the final two laps to score the biggest victory of his career.
While the amount led was vastly different, Burton and McMurray each had to be in a position to win to get to victory lane.
The same rang true for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Pocono Raceway last Sunday on a day dominated by Brad Keselowski. The race showed the growth of Earnahrdt’s career at Hendrick Motorsports and his time working with crew chief Steve Letarte.
With Earnhardt glued to Keselowski’s bumper in the closing laps, Keselowski’s car began to run extremely hot as trash covered his front grille. With the potential of his engine blowing or Earnhardt passing him as he lost power, Keselowski tried to clean his grille behind the lapped car of Danica Patrick.
Keselowski lost momentum in turn one and Earnhardt powered by on the inside the take the lead with four laps to go and held on to win his first career race at Pocono and second of the 2014 campaign. The win gave Earnhardt his first multi-victory season since 2004.
After two forgettable years in 2009 and 2010, Earnhardt has showed big improvements each season with Letarte, and now he is a championship contender.
“I think it’s the difference between running fourth at the end of this race and running second,” Earnhardt said in the media center when asked about his first multi-win season since 2004. “It’s a very small thing, but in years past when it was someone else seizing that opportunity from Brad and we were running third or fourth watching it happen, whereas we’ve improved our game a little bit and we’re getting a little faster and the company has gotten better. The company is really moving along great right now.
“And Steve has a great strategy for races like this,” he said. “I don’t know how he has the vision and understanding of where he wants to be 200 laps ahead or whatever. It just amazes me that he can see how he wants it to play out and he just picks and chooses his pit stops and what fuel mileage he wants to create for the car, and here we are running second at the end of the race, if I can get a good restart and maybe get by Brad we win.”
With Letarte on the pit box, Earnhardt locked himself into The Chase for his fourth straight season in their four years together.
Back in 2011 when many doubted Earnhardt’s ability and Letarte joined the 88 team, the duo earned a Chase berth with consistent finishes and staying out of trouble. Earnhardt recorded four top-five finishes and 12 top-10 finishes. Earnhardt only led in nine races, with only two races recording more than 10 laps led, 17 at Martinsville and 11 at Talladega.
Earnhardt built on 2011 with a strong 2012, leading the points for several weeks and winning his first race since 2008. While fast and leading more races, Earnhardt would have to pass many more cars to get to the front with his average starting position of 15.4. Earnhardt also suffered a major setback when a concussion at Talladega knocked him out for two races.
Facing more questions, Earnhardt started fast in 2013 with five straight top-10 finishes to lead the points. Though he did not win a race, Earnhardt improved his starting position and began leading more laps while running much more of each race in the top five. If not for an engine failure at Chicago in the opening Chase race, Earnhardt could have been in the thick of the championship battle at Homestead. In the final nine races, he recorded five top-fives and eight top-10s with three second-place finishes. The big jump came with Earnhardt leading in eight of the 10 Chase races.
With his second victory of the season Sunday, 2010 seems like ages ago. The growth of Earnhardt has been tremendous. He is having more fun than he has had in years. He is more relaxed and more focused than ever before.
After winning the Daytona 500, Earnhardt said the pressure was off and his team could go out and race for wins without worrying about points. His focus has translated to being a consistent threat for victories in 2014.
Since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, it felt like this could be Earnhardt’s storybook season with Letarte in his final season as crew chief before leaving for the television booth. With each top-five run and victory, Earnhardt continues to write his place in history. And the final chapter of 2014 for Earnhardt could be written with confetti and champagne as series champion.
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