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

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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

F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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