Dale Earnhardt Jr. passes Brad Keselowski late to win at Pocono (VIDEO)

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In case we needed a reminder that the fastest car doesn’t always win the race, we got one with today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Pocono Raceway.

Brad Keselowski was the most dominant driver of the Pocono 400 and when he held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a restart with 12 laps to go, it appeared the Team Penske driver would be heading to Victory Lane.

But a piece of trash got stuck to the grille of Keselowski’s No. 2 Ford, causing it to overheat while Earnhardt maintained pressure from behind.

With five laps left, he tried using the airflow around the lapped car of Danica Patrick to knock off the debris. But the loss in momentum allowed Earnhardt to pass him for the lead in Turn 2.

That proved to be the difference as Keselowski was unable to catch up in the closing laps and Earnhardt went on to his first career victory at the Tricky Triangle.

After the Hendrick Motorsports driver became the fourth competitor with multiple wins this Sprint Cup season, he admitted that speed-wise, Keselowski had him covered but was still happy with the outcome.

“That’s unfortunate for him,” Earnhardt told TNT. “He had me beat. I couldn’t get to him. It’s just real hard to pass here, but I’ve lost some in some strange ways. So it feels good to win one like that.

“…Brad definitely had a better car, and I’m definitely owning up to that. But we won the race and we’re definitely going to enjoy it. It goes into the books and helps us toward the Chase.

“We were there all day running great and had a fast car, but just didn’t really get track position until the end, and you gotta be there [at the end].”

Keselowski said he had no choice but to try something to get the trash off his car.

“I tried to make a move and get behind the 10 [Danica] and use the air to pull the debris off,” he said. “When she went in the corner, she got loose and I chased her up there and lost too much momentum.

“I should have just passed her but I had to do something. I knew the car wasn’t going to make it [with the trash on].”

It was a tough way to end things for Keselowski, who excelled in clean air and led the first 56 laps of the race. He ultimately led four times for a race-high 95 laps before settling for the runner-up spot.

By contrast, Earnhardt, while competitive, only led 11 laps. But out of those 11, he led the one that counted – the final one.

And thanks to his second win of the year, Earnhardt only needs now to stay in the Top 30 of the Sprint Cup championship standings (and attempt to qualify for every race) to officially clinch his spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Earnhardt now sits third in the standings behind new points leader/teammate Jeff Gordon and Matt Kenseth. Barring an epic disaster, staying in the Top 30 should be an easy task for the remainder of the regular season.

Kurt Busch appeared to get his season back on track with a third-place result that came after he overshot his pit box during a stop under a Lap 118 caution.

That was part of a bad race sequence for Stewart-Haas Racing which saw Kevin Harvick suffer a flat tire on Lap 115 while running second (he finished 14th), followed by Busch’s overshot, and then a speeding penalty for Tony Stewart in the pits (he finished 13th).

Pole sitter Denny Hamlin turned in a steady afternoon and finished fourth for his second consecutive Top-5 finish, and rookie Kyle Larson had a solid drive of his own to fifth.

Gordon’s eighth place result has allowed him to re-take the points lead after previous leader Kenseth finished 25th; Kenseth soldiered on following contact with Jamie McMurray around Lap 40 that left him with serious front-end damage.

Heading into Michigan International Speedway next weekend, Gordon leads the winless Kenseth by 16 points, with Earnhardt 22 points behind.

NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES – POCONO 400
Unofficial Results

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., led 11 laps
2. Brad Keselowski, led 95 laps
3. Kurt Busch, led 5 laps
4. Denny Hamlin, led 4 laps
5. Kyle Larson, led 7 laps
6. Jimmie Johnson, led 5 laps
7. Ryan Newman
8. Jeff Gordon, led 2 laps
9. Martin Truex Jr.
10. Jamie McMurray
11. Clint Bowyer
12. Kyle Busch
13. Tony Stewart, led 24 laps
14. Kevin Harvick
15. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
16. Greg Biffle
17. Austin Dillon
18. David Ragan
19. Brian Vickers, led one lap
20. Michael Annett
21. A.J. Allmendinger
22. Aric Almirola
23. Casey Mears
24. Marcos Ambrose
25. Matt Kenseth
26. Paul Menard
27. Justin Allgaier, led six laps
28. David Gilliland
29. Travis Kvapil
30. Cole Whitt, -1 lap
31. Alex Bowman, -1 lap
32. Ryan Truex, -1 lap
33. Landon Cassill, -2 laps
34. Reed Sorenson, -2 laps
35. Josh Wise, -2 laps
36. Timmy Hill, -2 laps
37. Danica Patrick, -2 laps
38. J.J. Yeley, -3 laps
39. Alex Kennedy, -4 laps
40. Joey Logano, Lap 150, Engine
41. Carl Edwards, Lap 143, Accident
42. Kasey Kahne, Lap 142, Accident
43. Dave Blaney, Lap 142, Running

Average Speed: 139.440 MPH
Lead Changes: 21 among 10 drivers
Time of Race: 02 Hrs, 52 Mins, 07 Secs.
Cautions: 7 for 26 laps
Margin of Victory: 0.439 Seconds

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500