Pocono Raceway has been kind to Dale Earnhardt Jr. this 2014 NASCAR season. After winning the Pocono 400 a couple of months ago, Earnhardt collected a second checkered flag in the GoBowling.com 400 on Sunday in Pennsylvania.
Earnhardt had never won at Pocono before this year, but he has to be loving the track now. The stock car racing star was in disbelief afterward, per NASCAR's official Twitter account:
"I can't believe we swept Pocono!" -@DaleJr— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 3, 2014
The two wins here backed up a marvelous triumph at the Daytona 500, making this undoubtedly one of Earnhardt's best seasons ever, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. with his 3rd career 3-win season. Also had 3 in 2001 (finished 8th in points) and career-high 6 in 2004 (finished 5th)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) August 3, 2014
NASCAR Stats noted how long it had been since Earnhardt was able to pull off a sweep at any track:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. looking for the Pocono sweep. It'd be the second sweep of his career and first since 2002 (Talladega). #NASCAR— NASCAR Stats (@NASCARStats) August 3, 2014
A late caution flag threatened to strip Earnhardt of his lead, but even that couldn't derail his bid for a third win of 2014. The restart saw Earnhardt hold off a crowd of talented drivers, most prominently eventual runner-up Kevin Harvick.
Here is a look at the Sunday results from Pocono, along with updated driver standings and a fresh look at the Chase for the Sprint Cup grid:
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14|
|2||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||740|
|Pos.||Driver||Points||Wins||Top 5||Top 10|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||740||3||10||15|
NASCAR pointed out how Earnhardt has essentially locked up his spot in the Chase, along with six other of his elite peers:
7 drivers have now all but clinched their Chase spots: Earnhardt Jr. Edwards Gordon Harvick Johnson Keselowski Logano Who will be next?— NASCAR (@NASCAR) August 3, 2014
With regard to Earnhardt's outlook for the rest of the year, he has to be feeling great as a member of the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team that also features driver points leader Jeff Gordon, who finished sixth and led a race-high 63 laps at the GoBowling.com 400.
This statistic from Jeff Gluck of USA Today puts into perspective how Earnhardt has used his immense experience and years of solid results to translate to more victories:
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has now won as many races in 2014 (three) as he did from 2006-2013 COMBINED. #NASCAR— Jeff Gluck (@jeff_gluck) August 3, 2014
No one has more top-five finishes than Earnhardt's 10, so he's been in consistent contention to win and could have had a higher amount of wins by now with some different fortune. Nevertheless, Earnhardt is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the Chase. No longer merely popular by name recognition, Earnhardt is producing at an almost unprecedented rate.
Next week, the NASCAR schedule shifts to the Cheez-It 355 at The Glen, a place where Hendrick Motorsports actually hasn't won at since Gordon did in 2001.
Who will win the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup title?
With the way Earnhardt is racing, it's feasible that he could snap that skid and notch his fourth victory of the year. If he does, it will be hard to discount Earnhardt as the Chase favorite even with teammates like the resurgent Gordon and pre-eminent champion driver Jimmie Johnson.
Just to be ahead of those two at this late juncture in the year is an achievement in and of itself. Whether Earnhardt can hang on is difficult to say.
There are unprecedented expectations and pressure on him now to deliver his maiden NASCAR title. But Earnhardt has proved he has the substance to back up his talent this season, and he's always felt some sort of heat for following in the steps of his legendary father.
A test next weekend on Watkins Glen's shorter track, which requires a lot of finessed driving, will be telling as Earnhardt continues his Chase for the Sprint Cup.