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.

Scott McLaughlin will make IndyCar debut for Team Penske at St. Pete

Scott McLaughlin IndyCar debut
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Two-time defending Supercars champion Scott McLaughlin will make his NTT IndyCar Series debut with Team Penske in the Oct. 25 season finale at St. Petersburg, Florida.

McLaughlin, 27, drove for Penske in preseason IndyCar testing at Circuit of the Americas, Sebring International Raceway (in a rookie evaluation) and Texas Motor Speedway, and he was announced Feb. 5 as making his debut with the team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic delayed the start of the season.

Travel restrictions also made it difficult for the New Zealand native to leave Australia, where he leads the points for DJR Team Penske in the Virgin Australia Supercars series with three races remaining. He set a Supercars record last season with 18 victories.

The Supercars season will conclude Oct. 18 with the prestigious 24 Hours of Bathurst. McLaughlin then will head directly to the States to drive the No. 3 Dallara-Chevrolet at St. Pete as a teammate of Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” McLaughlin, who also has won at Barber and Indianapolis while unofficially finishing first in the IndyCar iRacing Challenge, said in a release. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my IndyCar debut.”

McLaughlin, whose wife, Karly, is from New York, said he has discussed racing in America with car owner Roger Penske since he was hired by the team for the 2017 season.

“I’ve always said I’d love to have a crack at something else,” McLaughlin told reporters in February during the preseason test at Austin, Texas. “My goal was always to win the championship in Bathurst and Australia. I ticked those boxes, and then opportunities arise over time. The conversation between me and Roger was pretty short. ‘Would you be interested in IndyCar?’ I’d literally drive a wheelbarrow with a Team Penske sticker on it. I’d race anything that comes with the opportunity.

“I’ve always intended I’d love to get America one day potentially if I’ve done my goals in Australia. I’ve always said whether it’s now or 30 years down the track, I’d love to finish up (in America). I’ve promised Karly that we would come back here eventually. She’s not pushing me by any means, but I’ve always had a passion for American motorsport and certainly would love the opportunity.”

McLaughlin also has indicated a desire to try racing in NASCAR for Team Penske. He discussed his comfort with stock cars during a 2017 episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast (click on the link below to hear it).

Here’s the release from Team Penske:

MOORESVILLE, N.C. (September 17, 2020) – Team Penske announced today that Scott McLaughlin, the current Virgin Australia Supercars Championship points leader, is scheduled to make his long-awaited NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the series’ 2020 season finale on the Streets of St. Petersburg on Sunday, October 25.

The two-time and defending Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP) was set to compete in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race earlier this year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course before the COVID-19 global pandemic forced several delays and postponements on racing schedules, along with international travel restrictions. Before the pandemic shutdown, McLaughlin participated in the INDYCAR SERIES preseason open test at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas, where he ran consistently well and posted the third-fastest time of the test session. The 27-year-old native of New Zealand also competed in separate tests at the Sebring International Raceway road course and the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval.

“This is something I haven’t stopped thinking about, but I wanted to ensure my focus was on winning our third-straight Supercars championship for DJR Team Penske and all our partners in Australia,” said McLaughlin. “We are still laser-focused on that and have three more rounds to get it done, but I’m equally as excited to finally get the chance and make my INDYCAR debut. I’ve been doing everything I can to keep up with the series this year, from watching as many races as I can on TV to even talking to the drivers and some of the engineers back at the Team Penske shop. I never knew if I would be able to get behind the wheel of one of these cars this year due to all the COVID-19 restrictions, but I wanted to be ready if it became an opportunity.”

McLaughlin currently leads the Supercars point standings with just three rounds of competition remaining on the 2020 schedule. McLaughlin has produced a series-best 10 wins and 10 poles and holds a 143-point lead over Jamie Whincup entering this weekend’s race at The Bend. Over the course of his Supercars career, McLaughlin has won an impressive 53 races and 71 poles, while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019 and winning the driver’s title in each of the last two seasons. He also earned his first win in the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in 2019 with co-driver Alex Premat. Though he is in just his fourth season competing for Team Penske, McLaughlin already ranks third on the organization’s all-time wins list, trailing only Brad Keselowski and Mark Donohue.

Earlier this year, McLaughlin made his “virtual” INDYCAR debut, competing in the series’ iRacing Challenge and winning two races among the full field of current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers that were competing against each other while traditional racing was put on hold.

“Our plan has always been for Scott to run a race in the INDYCAR SERIES this season, but we never wanted to take the focus away from the main goal, which is winning another Supercars Championship,” said Team Penske President Tim Cindric. “COVID-19 certainly altered those plans early on, but with the way the schedules have lined up at the end of this season, St. Pete became an available option and we remain committed to getting him some INDYCAR seat time. We know Scott is ready for this challenge and this should add even more excitement to the 2020 season finale in St. Petersburg.”

McLaughlin will pilot the No. 3 Shell V-Power Nitro+ Dallara/Chevrolet at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, which was postponed from its original date in March and will now take place on Sunday, October 25. The race on the 1.8-mile street circuit will be seen live at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, with radio coverage on the Pennzoil INDYCAR Radio Network and SIRIUS XM.