NASCAR Pocono 2014 weekend recap: Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s ‘storybook’ season continues

Jerry Markland

A mature, more focused Dale Earnhardt Jr. is flourishing in his final season with crew chief Steve Letarte.

Be it a hotdog wrapper, a scrap of paper or whatever it actually was, the debris will forever be remembered by Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his legion of fans as the reason for his victory Sunday at Pocono Raceway.

Earnhardt is the first to admit he didn't have the fastest car. That claim would belong to Brad Keselowski, who led 95 of 160 laps Sunday, and was in front five laps from the finish.

"I'm turning 40 this year, and the overrated talk is way behind me. When you get old you don't really care anymore about those kinds of things."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A mysterious piece of debris, however, had affixed itself to the nose of Keselowski's Ford.

And with his engine temps soaring Keselowski tried desperately to shake loose the culprit that was keeping him from winning his second race of the season. The lapped car of Danica Patrick presented the best opportunity, so Keselowski tried to use the air off her Chevrolet as a vacuum.

But when he tried Keselowski's momentum was broken and Earnhardt pounced. Diving underneath Keselowski to grab the lead he wouldn't relinquish.

Sometimes the best team doesn't win the game, and sometimes in NASCAR the best car doesn't pull into Victory Lane. All Keselowski could do was second-guess his decision-making, while Earnhardt thanked his good fortune.

"That is unfortunate for him," Earnhardt said. "He had me beat I couldn't get to him  ... but I have lost some in some strange ways so it feels good to win one like that.

"You've got to be there and we were. Somebody had an issue so we capitalized."

Sunday's triumph continues what has been an enchanted year for Earnhardt, who kicked off 2014 with a dynamic Daytona 500 victory. Runner-up finishes followed in the next two races and set the tone for what has been Earnhardt's best season of his 15-year career.

Pocono represents the first time he's posted multiple wins in a season since 2004. Vanquished is the futility of 2009 and 2010 when Earnhardt languished mid-pack almost weekly.

The reasons for the turnaround are many. At the core is Steve Letarte, who was named crew chief of Earnhardt's No. 88 team prior to the 2011 season. With his appointment Letarte demanded more of his driver. No longer would Earnhardt be allowed to skirt team meetings to attend various sponsor obligations. The performance of the car came before anything else.

But Letarte is more than just a taskmaster; he also became Earnhardt's confidant. The two have as close a relationship as any driver - crew chief in the garage. It's that friendship which is at the core of their prosperity.

"Maybe that's why him and I are such good friends, because I might be the only one in the world that doesn't wonder what it's like to be Dale Jr.," Letarte said. "He's a normal guy, he's a great guy; he's a great talent.

"I don't pretend I have any idea what it's like to be him. I can't really fathom the idea. But he handles it with grace, and much like winning, he handles it with even more grace when it's not going well, and I think that says a lot about him."

Since their pairing Earnhardt has been a participant in the Chase for the Sprint Cup every year, and enjoyed his most consistent season in 2013.

Just as important to his evolution as a driver, Earnhardt matured off the track. Now, more comfortable about the man he's become; no longer just the son of a seven-time champion and one of NASCAR's most iconic figures.

"I'm turning 40 this year, and the overrated talk is way behind me," Earnhardt said. "That used to bother me when I was younger. But when you get old you don't really care anymore about those kinds of things.

"I took it for granted, and don't take anything for granted anymore when it comes to being at the racetrack and working with my team and how hard it is to get good and get competitive and how hard it is to get the right people in the right place. I feel like I'm such a lucky guy to have this second opportunity almost to be competitive again, and so I don't really worry about the detractors."

The Letarte - Earnhardt union comes with an unyielding end date, however.

Wanting more time with his family, Letarte is heading to the NBC Sports broadcast booth next year. Which is why amidst the jubilation of 2014 there is the knowledge if either driver or crew chief is to win their first championship, this season represents the best and maybe, last chance.

Nothing is going to change Letarte's mind otherwise, no matter how many races they win this season. Yet, while neither he nor Earnhardt try to focus much on the future, it's also inescapable.

"It's a really emotional thing," Earnhardt said. "Primarily, I'm real happy for him to be able to do this thing. He's going to be financially set, he's going to be able to spend a ton of time with his kids, play as much golf as he wants to play."

Beneath the emotion, a commitment still exists between Earnhardt and Letarte to make the most of their final campaign together. And thus far they've more than fulfilled their vow.

"I'm glad we're winning," Earnhardt said. "It would be very disappointing and sad if this was his last year and we struggled. But we've won two races. I won my first Pocono race; he won his first Daytona 500. It seems a bit storybook. We're having a real thrill."

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