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Junior gets his mojo back at Pocono

June 09, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Junior gets his mojo back at Pocono
Third-place run is best since early in season; Michigan, site of last win, awaits

LONG POND, Pa. -- Sunday at Pocono Raceway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. did more than record his best finish in more than two months. NASCAR’s most popular driver may also have regained some of the edge he had on the competition in the first few weeks of this season.

Although Earnhardt was unable to overtake race winner Jimmie Johnson on a trio of late restarts, he still seemed to rediscover some of his mojo at Pocono, where his third-place finish was his best since late March. Sunday was reminiscent of the five-race streak of top-10s Earnhardt used to open this year, one bookended by season-best runner-up finishes in the Daytona 500 and at Auto Club Speedway in Southern California.

“You’ve got to be there to win races. You’ve got to be there at the end. We haven’t been able to do that over the last couple of months,” Earnhardt said on pit road. “We’ve been struggling. But hopefully, we’ve got it turned around. Summer used to be my Achilles’ heel, and now it seems to be one of our strong suits. We’re going to try to maximize that and take advantage of the opportunities.”

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Indeed, last summer was perhaps the best stretch of Earnhardt’s 2012 campaign. He had arguably the best car at Pocono before pitting for fuel, snapped his 143-race winless skid the next week at Michigan, and briefly moved into the Sprint Cup Series points lead after a fourth-place result at Indianapolis. He occupied that top spot again following his run earlier this year at Fontana, but his team hasn’t seemed to be the same since.

Sunday, though, was a different story. Although Earnhardt didn’t lead a lap -- hardly anyone did other than the dominant Johnson, who paced 128 -- and fell from second to third on the final restart, the No. 88 car was in the top five virtually all afternoon on the 2.5-mile track.

“The first five, six, seven races, we had a tremendous amount of speed,” crew chief Steve Letarte said. “Texas we had great speed. Kansas we got caught by a yellow, Texas we broke an alternator. And then really we’ve lost our edge. We’ve been running like fifth to 10th, fifth to 15th. So it was nice to come back here. We didn’t really have car enough to win unless the 48 would somehow mess it up. And … if the 48 messed it up, I was going to be mad, because that’s the best car I’ve seen here in a long time. But that’s OK. You bring the second-best car to enough race tracks, you’ll win.”

At Pocono, Earnhardt’s only real opportunity to do that came on a trio of late restarts -- one prompted when Dave Blaney and Aric Almirola crashed with 22 laps remaining, another when AJ Allmendinger’s engine blew with 12 laps left, the last when Dave Blaney wrecked with six to go. Each time, Johnson was able to stay out front.

“That was the only shot I had, was the restarts,” Earnhardt said. “I had to try to beat him and get him behind me and try to get him some dirty air. He’s just so fast through (Turn) 3. If I didn’t get by him at that point, I wasn’t even going to get to him. He was just driving away.”

Letarte knew his driver needed Johnson to make a mistake -- which he also knew was unlikely to happen.

“Anybody can miss a shift, make a mistake, miss a groove. There’s a lot of opportunity,” the crew chief said. “We take for granted how easy Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and these guys make this look. They’re doing a lot of work out here. There’s a lot of opportunity for mistake. But that guy that won, he’s won a lot of them, so we weren’t expecting him to make too many mistakes.”

That doesn’t mean Johnson wasn’t concerned. “Restarts are so tough, and around here if you can get the clean air on a short run, especially with the series of cautions we had, it would be tough to pass him,” he said. “But even with having a dominant car, I didn't want to be in that position of running second and have to worry about getting by somebody.  I learned a lot on the two restarts where I was on the outside of the (Ryan Newman), and that helped me a lot going into those final three with Junior on the outside of me.”

Regardless, it was still a return to the form Earnhardt showed earlier in the season. At that point, Letarte said, his No. 88 team enjoyed an edge in the development of the Generation-6 car, a redesigned and more brand-identifiable vehicle that debuted on NASCAR’s top circuit this year. But in a sport that’s constantly evolving, they found it difficult to stay on top.

“I think everybody else gained,” Letarte said. “I think we came out really strong with the new car, had a big advantage, and we’ve (found it) hard to keep turning the Rubik’s Cube for the next advantage, and we haven’t found one. We came here with a little different concept in both the 48 (car of Johnson) and the 88, and I think it worked better. But this place is different, so we’ll just have to see as we get through the summer.”

The cars of Johnson and Earnhardt are fielded out of the same facility at Hendrick Motorsports. Although the results may not have indicated it before Sunday, Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, said he can see the progress his stablemates are making.

“I think Stevie and Dale are doing a really good job,” he said. “Their communication level has just soared over the last couple years, and I'm very proud of what it is that they do and how they communicate. They've got an amazing amount of respect for each other, and they believe in each other, and that's something that's very hard to find in the garage. When things go bad, a lot of teams, the driver will point fingers at the crew chief, the crew chief will point fingers at the drivers or the pit crew or mechanics or however it goes, and they don't do that. If they have a good week, they all celebrate it. If they have a bad week, they don't point fingers. They just say, ‘Well, we've got to get better.’ I think they are in a great spot.”

Particularly if Sunday’s performance ignites another summertime hot streak for Earnhardt -- who next week heads back to Michigan, the scene of that drought-buster a year ago, which is also his most recent victory.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “Hoping we can have a good run. We’re a good team, and if we can get up front there, we might get us a win and get us a repeat.”