The No. 88 NASCAR Sprint Cup car looked stout going around Pocono Raceway, the left front riding stable and close to the track, just as it should.
Qualifying at the tricky triangle was not a problem for Dale Earnhardt Jr., as he put his National Guard/Amp Energy Chevrolet in third position for the start of the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500 sponsored by Target to be run this Sunday.
Earnhardt Jr. qualified with a 53.224 at 169.097 compared to pole-sitter Kyle Busch who had a 53.102 at 169.485.
Junior's average finish at Pocono Raceway is 17.6 which closely mirrors his his 17th place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings..
He has never won at Pocono, but has six top-10 finishes.
Going into the second half of the season, Lance McGrew must pull out all stops to give his driver a car capable of top-five finishes. He must start at Pocono Raceway.
The crew chief of the No. 88 has refocused his attention from getting the car to work well on turn three and into the long straightaway.
McGrew stated, "Over the years of racing here a bunch of times, the tunnel turn seems to be the make-it-or-break-it turn."
Horsepower is key at Pocono Raceway and being able to accelerate out of the turns. McGrew was quoted as saying, "It's challenging to build a broader horsepower curve, so the engine pulls good at a low RPM that it comes off the corner and still has power at the top side."
The ability to get the car qualified well at Pocono, with it's challenging mix of features that affect the set-up is certainly a confidence booster for the team.
In the final practice session for the Gillette Fusion ProGlide 500, Dale Jr. did not have as much of a problem going fast as he did stopping.
Brakes were problematic, and the driver was uncomfortable with the pedal. McGrew is likely to change brake pads in the hopes that was all it was.
Mysterious steering problems had cost the team seven laps in a previous event. The actual problem was never identified.
The naysayers will jump in and say the drive can't get a handle on the COT and will never be comfortable with it.
McGrew must not only have great set-ups for the car, but all the side-bar issues must be resolved before the race.
Driver comfort and confidence in his car is key to performance.
Earnhardt Jr. has not felt the comfort levels he needs, and putting the blame solely on him would be unfair.
Mistakes by McGrew, the team as well as Junior have all been detrimental to the finishes of car No. 88.
Upcoming tracks play well to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his driving style. He has wins at Michigan International Speedway, Chicagoland Speedway, Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Richmond International Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway.
All of those tracks could be great for Junior in the races leading up to the Chase.
Back at Pocono, the team led by Lance McGrew had their No. 88 running eighth in the final practice session.
Qualifying and practice sessions are indicators of performance, but not necessarily reliable predictors of how the car will perform in race conditions.
We know Dale Earnhardt Jr. can get around the triangular track in the Honeymoon Capital nestled in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
His car looked good coming off the tunnel turn which can be a true heart-breaker when the driver hits it wrong.
Lance McGrew has 13 chances to prove his crew chief ability. He has 13 chances to get his driver secure in the top-12 of the points prior to the Chase.
The pressure is on McGrew, but perhaps the glimpse of a smile from his driver after qualifying third shows a bit of promise for this team.
Lance McGrew has a chance to make the save for his Hendrick Motorsports team but his driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has to be on his game as well.