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.

INDYCAR: Zach Veach ready for stronger second half of season

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If you hear Zach Veach humming or even singing The Beatles’ “Penny Lane” this weekend at Road America, there’s a jolly good reason for it, as they say in England.

Much like the way teammate Alexander Rossi has nicknamed his car “Baby Girl,” Veach has nicknamed his road and street course car “Penny Lane,” thanks in part to his girlfriend being a huge Beatles fan who has helped Veach also become a fan.

The Stockdale, Ohio native also has a nickname for his speedway car: “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”

Veach has had a tough rookie season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. He comes into this weekend’s Kohler Grand Prix in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, ranked 15th in the standings with 147 points, but an already massive 210 points behind series leader Scott Dixon.

He could easily sing The Beatles’ “Help!”, given how the season has gone so far.

The 23-year-old Veach’s best finish – and only top-10 showing thus far in 2018 – has been fourth at Long Beach – in “Penny Lane” of course, a finish he hopes to equal, if not improve upon, Sunday in central Wisconsin.

He’s struggled since Long Beach, though, failing to finish higher than 12th in the following six races: 13th at Birmingham, 23rd in both the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Indy 500, 12th and 13th at Detroit’s Belle Isle and 16th at Texas.

He also finished 16th in each of the season’s first two races at St. Petersburg and Phoenix.

But Veach hopes to be singing another Beatles song on the 4.048-mile road course: “Twist and Shout” in hopes of having a strong finish on the twisting 14-turn kettle moraine course.

Zach Veach, driver of the #26 Relay Group 1001 Honda, practices for the DXC Technology 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8, 2018. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Veach has a good reason to be optimistic for success at Road America.

“Road America has actually been pretty good to us in USF 2000 and Indy Lights,” Veach said. “I think we have four or five podiums there. In 2016 (racing for Belard Auto Racing), we set the track record in Lights, won the first race and finished third in the second. I’m hoping that speed continues (in Sunday’s IndyCar race).”

While he acknowledges this season’s struggles thus far, Veach also knows he’s learning and improving.

“I think the biggest thing is the braking capabilities of the Indy car,” he said. “You’re going from steel rotors (in Lights) to carbon pads. Honestly, it feels like you can brake 150 feet deeper going into a corner with an Indy car, but at the same time, you’re also going into that corner 40 to 50 mph faster in an Indy car than in a Lights car.

“Our first year in Indy Lights wasn’t anything spectacular, and then we came back and almost won a championship. I think that’s just the way I go about things. I take inches at a time instead of miles, but I feel like we’re getting to that point where we need to be in IndyCar.”

Veach is no stranger to Andretti Autosport, having raced with the team from 2010 to 2014 and then signed a three-year contract to drive in the Verizon IndyCar Series last fall.

“To have the opportunity to race with Andretti is almost perfect for me as far as growth and development,” Veach said. “With the three teammates I have and the skill and experience they have, it’s allowed my learning curve to accelerate that much quicker.

“That’s the tough thing. It’s a rookie season and when I look back at it and look at numbers, you may say things didn’t look good at certain races. But when I look back at them, I say to myself where that’s when I did my best fuel save, or that’s when I figured out how to fix an issue with braking. There’s so much I’ve picked up.

“But I feel like these last two race weekends have been arguably the most comfortable I’ve felt. Detroit, I was looking so great for 12th and 13th, and Texas, racing from 16th to 3rd and then I made a mistake (finished 16th). I finally feel confident enough to say I can race these guys and can race them hard and the car is finally starting to feel small, if you want to say that, like I’m driving the car instead of being stuck behind somebody else.”

While he’s learned from all of his Andretti Autosport teammates — Rossi, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay — Veach feels he is closest to fellow young driver, Rossi.

“We’re both on the younger side of the spectrum of our teammates,” Veach said of Rossi. “And he’s the newest guy learning IndyCar, so he got that experience a little sooner than the other guys as far as time.

“For me, I’m in much the same position he was in two years ago. He’s been real helpful in helping me get up to speed.”

With eight more races remaining in the season, Veach’s primary goal is to finish his first full IndyCar season in the top-10. He’s currently 66 points behind the 10th-ranked driver, teammate Marco Andretti.

“If we could be top-10 in the championship, that’d be great, that’s what we’re hoping for,” Veach said. “We want to try and be consistently in the top-10 in the second half (of the season) in race results, too. And if we could get some top-fives, that would be fantastic.

“We just have to keep improving on qualifying, which shows how well you understand the car and how you can get the most out of it. I feel our race speed has been good, but when you’re starting at or near the back, it’s hard to move forward.”

Even so, there’s still good reason for optimism for Veach.

“Andretti always gives its drivers some of the best cars, so at the end of the day, it comes down to you learning as much as you can and learning as much as you can get out of a race-winning car,” he said. “I’ve just been lucky. This is my sixth season with Andretti if you count the ladder series, and it always has felt like a family.”

And if he has a strong finish Sunday at Road America, don’t be surprised if Veach hums or sings another Beatles song, “I Feel Fine,” as he leaves the legendary road course.

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