(Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Junior, Junior, Junior — Earnhardt makes it 3 wins in 2014 with Pocono sweep (updated)


Just like he did in his June win there, Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied in the latter stages of Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 to sweep both races of the season at Pocono Raceway.

Earnhardt took the lead from Greg Biffle on Lap 147 and never looked back, eventually building a more than three-second lead.

Even a late race caution brought out by Kurt Busch hitting the wall on Lap 153 of the 160-lap event did not keep Earnhardt from victory lane. He had an excellent restart on Lap 157 and powered his way to the win, holding off a hard-charging Kevin Harvick, who finished second.

Earnhardt now has three victories this season, starting with a triumphant win in the season-opening Daytona 500. He’s tied with Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski for most wins thus far in 2014.

It’s also the fifth consecutive win at Pocono for Hendrick Motorsports drivers.

Earnhardt predicted before the race that Sunday’s car was even better than the ride that carried him to victory in the June race at the 2.5-mile tri-oval – and he wound up being spot-on.

“I was just trying to hold (Harvick) off, they were faster than my car,” Earnhardt told ESPN after the race. “I was overdriving it, not rolling the center very good and Kevin was getting me in (turns) one and two.

“We had a fast car all day. Steve’s strategy was perfect at the end. That was real awesome. It takes a real smart guy to know what to do and to take those gambles. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t. I can’t believe we swept Pocono.

“We definitely went home after the last race and made our car better. They went and didn’t sit on what we did last time. They wanted us to get better and be a faster car, where we didn’t need a little luck to have to win.”

Harvick, who officially clinched his berth in the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup, gave Earnhardt all he could handle in the final three laps, but just came up a bit short.

“To not have wrecked my car (and) I got a speeding penalty (earlier),” Harvick said of what kept him from catching Earnhardt. “This hasn’t been one of my best tracks.

“I made a lot of mistakes today and (his crew) made up for it with a fast race car.”

Joey Logano finished third, followed by Clint Bowyer and Biffle.

Biffle looked as if he might have enough to take the win, but when Earnhardt got past him, there wasn’t much Biffle could do from that point on.

“I’m heartbroken that that caution came out when the 47 (AJ Allmendinger on Lap 140) blew a tire. That just killed our day,” Biffle said. “Kevin and I were out there, it was going to be Mickey Mouse, who would run out of fuel.

“When you have a 15th-place car, you have to play strategy to get there and win these races. … We’re not happy with the way we’re competing. We want to compete for these wins, and the 88 and those Hendrick cars are pretty fast. So, we’ll keep working at it.”

But there was some good news after the race for Biffle: he moved up to 16th in the Race to the Chase standings with five races remaining. Biffle is still seeking his first win, as well as other drivers that are in the top-16 after Pocono, including Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and rookie Kyle Larson.

Sixth through 10th were Brickyard 400 winner Jeff Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Newman, Denny Hamlin and Kasey Kahne.

“Awesome, awesome car today,” said Gordon, who led a race-high 63 laps. “We had the dominant car but you had to have track position and there at the end, we didn’t have it.

“With Dale getting out in front of us on that pit sequence, there was nothing we could do. He was really good. Whoever got out in front, him or me, was going to win this race.”

Pole-sitter Larson finished 11th, followed by Casey Mears, Kurt Busch, Marcos Ambrose, rookie Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier in 16th, David Gilliland, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., David Ragan and Ryan Truex in 20th.

The next race is next Sunday on the road course at Watkins Glen International.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.