Daytona was nice, but Pocono win even bigger for Dale Jr.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted flat-out that he didn’t have the fastest car on Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

But in the end, the result is what matters – and he and the rest of Junior Nation were mighty pleased with the result they got.

Brad Keselowski had this race dead to rights, but when a piece of trash on his car’s grille caused it to start overheating, that ultimately opened the door for Earnhardt to steal his second Sprint Cup win of 2014 when Keselowski tried – and failed – to use the airflow around Danica Patrick to get the trash off.

A win’s a win. And in this current era of NASCAR, you take ’em any way you can. Waxing the field with the best car, taking advantage of someone else’s problem, it doesn’t matter.

With two victories in his pocket, Earnhardt has become a virtual lock for the Chase. He’s finished no better than fifth in NASCAR’s playoff system, and he’s done it three times (2004, 2006, 2013).

But after Sunday, it feels like Earnhardt is going to improve upon that mark when the Chase arrives. Winning a second Daytona 500 to begin the year was nice, but Sunday’s win at the Tricky Triangle has thoroughly established him as a title threat.

Sunday wasn’t about riding around for 90 percent of the race and hoping you’ll win out in a restrictor-plate crapshoot. Sunday was about making track position and strategy work, and then capitalizing on an opportunity.

Crew chief Steve Letarte and the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports crew were great on the first part. And Earnhardt took care of the second part. “Total team effort” may be a sports cliche, but it fits perfectly here.

The Pocono win is a just reward for Earnhardt and the 88 bunch, who have been one of the most competitive squads in Sprint Cup since last fall. After beginning the 2013 Chase with an engine failure at Chicagoland, Earnhardt rattled off three runner-ups and eight Top-10s in the final nine races.

He took that momentum over to this year, which began with a win in the Great American Race. And since then, he’s posted an additional six Top-5s and eight Top-10s.

“We’ve been fast every week,” Earnhardt said. “We kind of started that around the middle of last year, toward the end of last year. I think we have not peaked as a team performance-wise, but we’re certainly at our highest ceiling.

“We’re doing some of our best work certainly right now. We should – we have a lot of passion and there’s a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve’s last year [as a crew chief], and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can.”

And with the team giving their best for him, Earnhardt has been giving his best for them.

Even though he knew that Keselowski probably had him covered if he didn’t get past him on the final restart with 12 laps to go, Earnhardt said that he kept telling himself that he wasn’t defeated yet.

In his mind, he owes that bulldog mentality to his team.

“I just kept on trying to be positive and work hard on the restarts and be diligent and try to hope for the best instead of mentally forfeiting the race,” he said.

“I think the confidence that I have in the team and how hard they work and how well we’re doing gives me a bit of a more fighting spirit in that situation than I’ve had in the past.”

Keselowski held off his charge on the restart and that looked to be that. But Earnhardt did not drop back and settle for second. He stayed close to the “Redd’s Deuce,” ready to attack if Keselowski found trouble.

You know what happened next.

Now, instead of fretting over things like, say, road course testing in a bid to salvage points at those races (Sonoma and Watkins Glen usually haven’t been all that great to Junior), he can just have fun with the rest of the regular season.

“We don’t have to worry about that now,” he said. “We can go to Michigan confident, happy, and a track where we really run well at and we can have fun this summer knowing those two wins have got us good and locked in pretty good.

“It definitely made a difference in Daytona. Now having two wins is going to make it even easier, a lot less stress, a lot less stress on the team, and I think that could be a good thing going into the Chase.”

And less stress for him could mean more stress for his rivals when it’s time to race for a championship.

Conor Daly, Jack Harvey crash out of Indy 500

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Conor Daly and Jack Harvey have crashed out of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on lap 65.

Daly, in the No. 4 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet, was working his way through traffic and attempted an outside pass on Charlie Kimball entering Turn 3.

However, Daly’s car broke loose on the outside in the middle of the corner. He corrected, but drifted too high and impacted the wall exiting the corner. He immediately took responsibility over the radio and apologized to his team before exiting the car on under his own power.

Jack Harvey, in the No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda, was an innocent bystander and spun to avoid debris off Daly’s car. However, he spun to the inside wall between Turns 3 and 4. He, too, climbed from his car unhurt, although on replay it appeared his car was not far removed from one of the Holmatro Safety Team rescue vehicles.

Jack Harvey was an innocent bystander in Conor Daly’s accident. Photo: IndyCar

Both drivers were checked, cleared, and released from the infield medical center.

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Dixon OK after airborne crash with Howard; Indy 500 red-flagged

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Polesitter for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Scott Dixon’s race has come to an early end.

Jay Howard hit the wall coming out of Turn 2 and rolled through the middle of the straightaway with a broken car, with his right front suspension askew. Dixon was coming out of the turn and was unable to avoid the wreckage of Howard’s car.

Dixon bounced off and went airborne, turning over once before landing on all four wheels. Somehow during all of that, Helio Castroneves was able to sail under the airborne Dixon and was not involved in the incident.

Both drivers climbed out of their cars and were taken to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield care center.

The race was red flagged on Lap 55 to allow safety teams to clean up a significant amount of debris from both cars, as well as to repair safety fencing on the inside of the track.

Former two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso is scored in first place, followed by last year’s Indy 500 winner, Alexander Rossi and Takuma Sato.

Dixon, mercifully, was OK.

“Yeah just a little beaten up there. A bit of a rough ride,” Dixon told ABC’s Dr. Jerry Punch. “I’m bummed for the team and for Camping World. We got a little loose on the first stint. We were a bit light on downforce. I’m just bummed for them and glad everyone is OK. Definitely a wild ride. Thank you for Dallara and the safety status.

“It’s tough. I was hoping Jay would stay against the wall. I’d already picked that way to go and there was nowhere else to go. I’m glad he’s OK too. You believe in the safety progress of these cars.”

Howard told Punch, “Yeah, I’m fine. Credit to INDYCAR, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the safety team, Dallara for building this car. I’m fine thanks to them. I’m really glad Scott’s okay. He was a victim of this. It sucks.”

Howard said he wasn’t sure what caused him to hit the wall, whether a part broke in the suspension or something else. But he did blast fellow driver Ryan Hunter-Reay.

“Hunter-Reay gets a run on me, I lift to let him go, try to be a nice guy, he moves right over on me and cuts me into the gray and all the marbles and the rest is history, he causes a massive accident,” Howard told ABC. “To say I’m unhappy is an understatement.”

Both Howard and Dixon have been checked and released from the care center and cleared to drive.

The race was red flagged for 19 minutes from 1:09 p.m. to 1:28 p.m. Engines have now been restarted as the field completed Lap 56.

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Hamilton exceeds Mercedes’ expectations with fightback to P7 in Monaco

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Lewis Hamilton was left pleased with his fightback from 13th on the grid to finish Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix in seventh place, going some way to limit the damage of Formula 1 title rival Sebastian Vettel’s victory for Ferrari.

Hamilton qualified a lowly 14th on Saturday in Monaco after struggling with setup and tire management, but gained one place on the grid following Jenson Button’s penalty.

Hamilton passed just one car in the opening stint of the race and struggled to keep up with the cars ahead, prompting Mercedes to extend the Briton’s ultra-soft run for as long as possible.

Hamilton was able to find some clear air when the cars ahead made their pit stops, giving him the chance to lay down some rapid laps that vaulted him up to seventh thanks to the overcut, where he would finish the race.

“I’m really, really happy that I was able to fight back to seventh. The strategists said P10 was probably the maximum today, so it feels great to have beaten that target,” Hamilton said.

“To score six points, considering where I was on the grid after a disastrous day on Saturday is a good recovery. Today it was impossible to overtake and I tried everything to get past Carlos [Sainz] at the end!

“I’m just grateful to have ended up in P7. I went on the radio at the end there to make sure the team know that this battle isn’t over.

“We’ll be sure to push those red cars hard next time out in Canada. We’ve got a real fight on our hands, but there are still 14 races to go.”

With Vettel’s victory, Hamilton now sits 25 points behind in the F1 drivers’ championship with 14 races remaining this season.

Raikkonen disappointed as strategy calls costs him shot at Monaco win

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Kimi Raikkonen was left disappointed following Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix after Ferrari’s strategy call cost him a shot at his first victory for the Scuderia since 2009.

Raikkonen took his first pole for almost nine years on Saturday in Monaco and led the early part of the race from teammate Sebastian Vettel.

Ferrari pitted Raikkonen just before half distance, but opted to keep Vettel out as the German put in a series of quick laps to get the overcut on his teammate.

Vettel emerged from his stop ahead of Raikkonen on-track and retained his advantage to the checkered flag, clinching Ferrari’s first win in Monaco since 2001.

While P2 marked Raikkonen’s best result of the season so far, the Finn was careful with his words in the post-race podium interviews, his disappointment clear to see.

“Hard to say really,” Raikkonen said when asked how he was feeling.

“Obviously… you know it’s still second place, but it doesn’t feel awful good. This is how it goes sometimes.

“We go for the next race and try to do better. One of those days that you wish you had a bit more.”