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No win, but more consistency from Junior

June 11, 2012, Viv Bernstein, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team made the decision to gas-up late at Pocono, which cost them in the end. (Gettyy Images)

No. 88 team takes late gas stop, gives up strong position at Pocono

LONG POND, Pa. -- If any driver was going to extend the Hendrick Motorsports streak of Sprint Cup victories to four, then surely that destiny was ready to fall on Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wasn't it finally time for his own streak of 142 races without a win to end, too?

No driver had been more consistent this season than Earnhardt, who came into Pocono with a Cup-best 10 top-10 finishes this season. And no other Hendrick Motorsports race team was both strong and mistake free Sunday, as Earnhardt's No. 88 Chevrolet was in the Pocono 400 Presented by #NASCAR.

"Dover is usually ... where I tend to go south. [So] It's been nice to run good. ... We've really been strong enough all year. I expect it to keep going."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Earnhardt had raced with the frontrunners at Pocono Raceway all day. He had led three times for a total of 36 laps -- the only Hendrick driver to lead a lap.

But, in a race that came down to a gamble, Earnhardt's bet didn't pay off. When he dipped onto pit road for fuel to avoid the chance of running out of gas in the final laps, he was left behind by the drivers who stayed out and saved enough fuel to race to the end. Joey Logano wound up passing Mark Martin for the win, ending his own 104-race streak without a victory.

As for Earnhardt, he finished eighth. It was another top 10.

Still, the streak continues.

"We had a really, really good car,'' Earnhardt said. "That was fun. That was the funnest car I've had all year and the best car I've had at Pocono in a long, long time. So, I'm just really trying not to be too upset about it because we did a lot of good things today and we've got a lot to look forward to."

One of the best things Earnhardt did on Sunday was actually what he didn't do. He made sure not to get caught speeding on pit road on a day when the NASCAR police handed out 22 pit-road speeding penalties including two to teammate Jimmie Johnson and one to Jeff Gordon.

It was one mistake Earnhardt refused to make this time.

"I was really ridiculously slow coming onto pit road,'' he said. "But I just don't want to get popped. I get burned on TV and by the fan base whenever we do anything stupid on pit road, such as miss our stall or something. It takes me about a year and a half to get over that in a lot of people's eyes, so I can't make too many mistakes on pit road. We have to be pretty careful."

There were no such blemishes on Sunday, and Earnhardt was running in first place when he led the field to pit road during a caution for debris after Aric Almirola's No. 43 hit the wall on lap 124 of the 160-lap race. That was short of the fuel window for the race teams, and all were trying to save gas to avoid a final pit stop.

"Don't you run me out of gas,'' Earnhardt told his crew chief Steve Letarte on the radio. "I don't care what we have to do. ... I ain't going to forgive you for running me out of gas."

When Kasey Kahne's No. 5 hit the wall with 23 laps to go, the decision was easy.

"Our bed is made,'' Letarte told Earnhardt.

He was third at the time when he headed to pit road for fuel. He was 16th when he returned to the track with 17 laps to go.

Another caution for debris allowed the leaders to save just enough gas for that final green-flag run of eight laps. While Logano battled with Mark Martin for the victory, Earnhardt could only make it back to eighth.

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"I think we could have won if we had made it (without refueling),'' Letarte said. "Just too short."

Earnhardt did not second-guess the decision.

"I back his call that he made today,'' Earnhardt said. "I don't like running out of gas. I ran out of gas here one year and that pisses me off so bad that it's just hard to recover from it, mentally, you know, in the next couple of weeks.

"There's just no excuse in running out of gas. You put fuel into it and you go run."

Earnhardt now has 11 top-10s in 14 races this year and he moves up to second in the points standings, 10 behind new leader Matt Kenseth. That includes 10 top-10s in the last 11 races.

"Dover is usually the first race that starts off where we usually start to go south or where I tend to go south,'' said Earnhardt, who was fourth at Dover last week. "It's been nice to run good. Our team is strong. We've really been strong enough all year. I expect it to keep going."

It will keep on at least until Michigan, which is where the Cup series heads to next weekend. Remember, it was at Michigan in 2008 when Earnhardt won his last race.

Destiny, anyone?