Chase Capsules: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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88 – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Best Finish: 3rd (2003)
Chase History: 7th Chase Appearance, Best finish of 5th in 2004, 2006 and 2013

Regular Season Recap: Beginning with his huge win in the season-opening Daytona 500 and his two wins at Pocono, Dale Earnhardt Jr. already has enjoyed his most successful season (and total of wins) since 2004. And there’s still 10 races remaining. Wins are great, but it’s been the consistency that has separated Junior this year from year’s past. And with the exception of just one week when he dropped to sixth, he’s fluctuated between first and fifth place in the season standings. But Junior isn’t done by any stretch. He can easily win Saturday at Richmond and perhaps grab another win or two in the Chase. Until he proves otherwise, this very well could be Earnhardt’s greatest season ever.

Jerry’s Take: An argument can be made that this has – to date – been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s best season yet in Sprint Cup racing.

Sure, he had a career-best six wins in the first year of the Chase (2004), but starting with his win in the season-opening Daytona 500, Earnhardt has appeared more motivated to win that elusive first championship than he ever has.

He has more incentive, as well. First, this is crew chief Steve Letarte’s final season with Junior before becoming a full-time NASCAR analyst on NBC telecasts in 2015. Also, Earnhardt turns 40 next month (where has the time gone). He knows he’s already begun the downhill slide on his career.

If he’s ever to win a Sprint Cup championship, this likely will be the best opportunity he’ll ever have.

Chris’s Take: This has been building over the last year for Earnhardt, who served notice that 2014 would be a strong season for him thanks to a great 2013 Chase following his engine failure at Chicagoland.

Now, as this year’s post-season looms, he and his rabid fan base are brimming with hope that this will be the year. And why shouldn’t they be?

Junior has been in the lead pack almost all the way, and the 88 team as a whole (including outgoing crew chief Steve Letarte) is as cohesive a unit as you’ll find in the garage. I’d be surprised if these guys didn’t make it to Homestead with a chance at the Cup.

Tony’s Take: A revitalized, focused Dale Earnhardt Jr. has emerged throughout the entirety of the 2014 season and is in the best position possible to capture his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title. It would be a fitting cap to a year when he and crew chief Steve Letarte are at the end of their stint together.

Problem is, lately, Junior and the No. 88 team haven’t clicked nearly as well as they did in the first half of the year. The qualifying needs to improve. Simple ninth to 12th place finishes on race day won’t get the job done. With only one top five in the last eight races, Junior has fallen behind in the Hendrick pecking order, if not the standings themselves.

He should be able to advance through the Challenger and Contender rounds easily, provided the finishes pick up. But advancing from Eliminator through to the finale at Homestead may be a greater challenge. Right now, it’s hard to see three of the four Hendrick drivers able to fight for a title at Homestead, and Junior will need to recapture that early season form if he wants to be in with a shot.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Career Statistics at Chase Tracks
Chicagoland (1.5 mile) – One win, 3 Top-5s, 5 Top-10s in 13 starts
New Hampshire (1 mile) – Zero wins, 7 Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in 30 starts
Dover (1 mile) – One win, 6 Top-5s, 11 Top-10s in 29 starts
Kansas (1.5 mile) – Zero wins, 2 Top-5s, 8 Top-10s in 16 starts
Charlotte (1.5 mile) – Zero wins, 5 Top-5s, 10 Top-10s in 29 starts
Talladega (2.66 mile) – Five wins, 10 Top-5s, 14 Top-10s in 29 starts
Martinsville (half-mile) – Zero wins, 11 Top-5s, 16 Top-10s in 29 starts
Texas (1.5-mile) – One win, 4 Top-5s, 13 Top-10s in 24 starts
Phoenix (1 mile) – Two wins, 7 Top-5s, 11 Top-10s in 24 starts
Homestead-Miami (1.5 mile) – One win, 1 Top-5s, 2 Top-10s in 14 starts

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Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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