Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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.

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

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NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski