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Earnhardt Jr. gets lucky despite transmission woes

August 05, 2012, Seth Livingstone, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Despite swapping out transmissions on Saturday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the problem re-emerge during Sunday's race. (Getty Images)

LONG POND, Pa. -- Driver keeps lead in standings after Kenseth wrecks and rain ends race early

For 49 laps, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had one of the cars to beat in Sunday's Pennsylvania 400.

He led 17 of the first 38 laps and appeared to have one of the few cars capable of giving Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson a run for the money.

"Finally, in third and fourth [gear] coming out of the tunnel, it didn't have any fourth. Then I didn't have third."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Then his transmission, which already had been swapped out once during he weekend, failed him.

"We put it in [Saturday] and during qualifying it was fine," said Earnhardt, who managed to retain the Sprint Cup Series points lead despite his 32nd-place finish at Pocono Raceway. "When we restarted [on Lap 23], it was kind of aggressive, and then [we experienced] a bit of a vibration. The car was just really out of time, and it just kind of started missing some shifts and [was] difficult to get in gear.

"Finally, in third and fourth [gear] coming out of the tunnel, it didn't have any fourth. Then I didn't have third."

Then, Earnhardt didn't have any choice.

* Video: Transmission troubles for Junior

Seeking his sixth top-five in a nine-race span, he took his No. 88 Chevrolet directly to the garage. He fell 19 laps off the pace as his crew replaced the gear box and was 18 laps down when the race was halted by rain.

Earnhardt entered the race with a 14-point lead over Matt Kenseth. He left Pocono leading Kenseth by five points, Greg Biffle by six and Johnson by eight with five races to go before the Chase field is set.

A late race crash by Johnson and Kenseth, who were leading on what ended up being the race's final restart, enabled Earnhardt to hang onto the points lead.

It's a lead Earnhardt has built with consistency.

Sunday's race marked the first time that Earnhardt failed to complete every lap this season. It was his worst finish of the season and only the second time he finished lower than 17th.

Transmission issues aside, Earnhardt, who started eighth and rocketed to the lead by Lap 11, was quite happy with his car.

"We had a good run going," he said. "This Chevrolet was pretty fast. Jimmie [Johnson had] the quickest car out there. But we felt like we might be able to work on ours and get a little better."

When the tangle between Johnson and Kenseth was followed by a torrential downpour, it was Earnhardt's other teammates who benefitted. Jeff Gordon claimed his first victory of the season, with Kasey Kahne finishing second.

Kahne admitted being somewhat spooked by Earnhardt's transmission failure, fearing he had similar trouble. As Kahne's crew chief Kenny Francis put it, Earnhardt's problems had Kahne "seeing ghosts."

"I don't think I really had much of a problem," Kahne said. " I think I was worried because Junior broke one or broke something with the transmission, I'm not sure what. I was struggling with mine a little bit when that happened ... so I just quit shifting for a while, and I was a lot slower.

"[Earnhardt's crew chief] Steve Letarte said it wasn't a big deal. What happened with them was not what I feel was going on with mine. So from that point on, I focused on shifting again and didn't even have an issue. Once I quit worrying about it, we were flying."