Earnhardt Jr. Seizes the Day

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt's second win of the season marked the sixth time in the season’s first 14 races he's finished third or better. No other driver has as many top-three finishes this season. (Photo: Getty Images)

LONG POND, Pa. - Some might say it was karma, that a cosmic energy sought to add balance. Think about the times Dale Earnhardt Jr. lost races late and maybe Sunday’s Pocono 400 was retribution.

That 2011 Coca-Cola 600 - where he ran out of fuel leading on the last lap - will always sting. Same thing happened to him at Las Vegas this year, allowing Brad Keselowski to win.

Was Sunday’s Pocono victory a way to atone for that Vegas loss? Debris on the front grille of Keselowski’s car caused him to slow, allowing Earnhardt by with five laps to go.

Go ahead and believe that it was karma if you want but understand this was a victory earned - one Earnhardt earned during the past few seasons.

Had Earnhardt not been good enough, he couldn’t have been in position to win at Pocono and score multiple victories in a season for the first time since 2004 - before teammate Jimmie Johnson had won a NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

In previous years, Earnhardt wasn’t close enough to take advantage of a leader’s misfortune and win. Now, he’s a regular.

“It's the difference between running fourth at the end of this race and running second,’’ Earnhardt said of why he’s winning more often. “It's a very small thing, but in years past when it was someone else seizing that opportunity from Brad, we were running third or fourth watching it happen, whereas we've improved our game a little bit and we're getting a little faster and the company has gotten better.’’

Sunday marked the sixth time in the season’s first 14 races Earnhardt has finished third or better. No other driver has as many top-three finishes this season.

Include the final five races of last year - Earnhardt had three top-three finishes then - and he’s had nine top-three finishes in the last 19 races. That’s nearly half the races. He’s put himself in position to score these wins instead of randomly popping up at the front.

The difference, Letarte says, is immeasurable.

“It's a moment in time during 400 miles that a talented crew chief might see or a talented driver, but the normal fan or even the media has no idea that that was the change of the outcome of the race,’’ said Letarte, who will leave the team after this season to join NBC Sports. “They happen all the time. I don't mean the big monumental ones. It's the very simple ones that we as experts, the crew chiefs and drivers in the sport, we see them, and sometimes you get done with the race and you didn't see it, and you have to go back and review it and try to be better.’’

It’s obvious how Letarte has changed Earnhardt’s course. Earnhardt said last week that he worried that if his pairing with Letarte didn’t work what would happen to him.

“If I don’t run well with him, how am I going to justify the equipment I’m in, the people I’m working with?’’ Earnhardt said he wondered at the time. “How am I going to justify being worthy of that?’’

Those questions seem so far away now.

The paring worked immediately. Still, it took time to win. There was that Martinsville race in spring 2011 that Earnhardt looked as if he would win until Kevin Harvick passed him in the final laps. Then came the Coke 600 last-lap disappointment.

Those challenges helped mold this team and with two wins already this season, it’s not hard to think there won’t be more.

“We have a lot of passion and there's a lot of emotion, considering this is Steve's last year, and I think that also adds some drive and determination to the team to do as well as we can,’’ Earnhardt said after his 21st career Cup win.

“That can be dangerous, I think, for everybody else.’’

Earnhardt was asked if his team has become the sport’s top team, leading Earnhardt to chuckle because of the acclaim Johnson had received for winning the previous two races.

“I don't want to be the new 48,’‘ he said. “I want to be the new 88. We'll definitely try to continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a mark similar to anyone else.’’

He and his team are starting to do that - a mark as a team that doesn’t let chances slip away.

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