Hendrick Motorsports Has Others Searching for Speed

Dale Earnhart Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Jeff Gordon were the class of the field Sunday a week after Gordon had the best car at Indianapolis. (Photo: Getty Images)

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LONG POND, Pa. - Moments after Dale Earnhardt Jr. zipped by for the lead Sunday at Pocono, Greg Biffle radioed his team in a longing voice: “Some day I’ll get to drive a car like that.’’

While Biffle and his Roush Fenway Racing teammates have searched for speed all year, it hasn’t been an issue for Earnhardt. He and teammate Jeff Gordon were the class of the field Sunday a week after Gordon had the best car at Indianapolis.

The past two weeks didn’t show anything new - Hendrick Motorsports has been strong all year - but it reaffirmed that there’s still a gap between Hendrick and the rest of the field with less than six weeks until the Chase begins. Team Penske is the closest but even it has work to do.

That Gordon finished sixth at Pocono instead of making it a 1-2 finish for Hendrick Motorsports was more the result of how the race played with its varying strategies, cautions and a couple of late restarts. Even so, he was upbeat after the race.

“The car was amazing,’’ Gordon told his team on the radio. “We keep bringing cars like that, we’re going to win a lot more.’’

Just as the organization has. Hendrick Motorsports has won seven of the last 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup races. Team Penske is next with two victories. Stewart-Haas Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing are winless in that stretch.

Many are aware of the challenge they face.

Although Joey Logano finished third, crew chief Todd Gordon called it only a “decent day” and noted that there are ways to improve.

“Obviously, we’ve got some catching up to do with (Jeff Gordon) and (Earnhardt),’’ Todd Gordon said. “They were very strong, very strong. I feel there has been a step in their program to get better. We’ve got to keep digging to try to find it ourselves.’’

In the June Pocono race, the field chased Logano’s teammate, Brad Keselowski, much of the day before Earnhardt won, taking the lead late as Keselowski tried to get trash off his grille.

While that victory marked Earnhardt’s first since the Daytona 500, crew chief Steve Letarte knew they had to more for Sunday’s return visit.

“There was room for improvement,’’ he said.

They found it.

“We thought we made some gains at Indy, and they didn't really show up in the race, which was a little disappointing,’’ Letarte said. “So, we stuck to our plan and came here and we once again, had a solid weekend. I think it happened that we had some breakthroughs and had some more speed in the car, which allowed us to be aggressive with our pit strategy.’’

That’s the beauty of speed. It allows teams to dictate a race - or in Gordon’s case force others to try different strategies.

“(Jeff Gordon) was so strong, we wanted to try to leapfrog them on pit road and not try to leave it up to circumstance on the race track,’’ Letarte said of a strategy that left Earnhardt’s car needing about three seconds of fuel on the last stop instead of more time as was the case for others.

Speed also gives a driver more freedom on how to race. They can be patient. They can be forceful. They can make passes few others can. They can be in control. And when it comes down to the final restart, there’s a level of confidence such a driver has. Earnhardt had it in his duel with Kevin Harvick.

“I knew how confident Kevin was going to be going into Turn 1, and I had to have that same confidence in my car,’’ Earnhardt said. That was mano a mano, guy versus guy, and he's going to be brave and I got to be brave.’’

He was. And faster.

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