Commentary

Earnhardt feeling no pressure now

Updated: June 9, 2014, 4:38 PM ET
By K. Lee Davis | ESPN.com

LONG POND, Pa. -- One driver is always judged better than another "on paper."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday's Pocono 400 because of a piece of paper on the grille of Brad Keselowski's car.

Earnhardt felt bad for Keselowski at Pocono Raceway, but he feels pretty good about winning his first race at Pocono in 29 tries and winning for the second time this season, the first time he has won more than once since 2004.

After having lost some races because of strange circumstances, Earnhardt was happy to have one go his way. And friends with Keselowski or not, he made it clear it's every driver for themself down the stretch of a race.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/Mike GrollJimmie Johnson, left, congratulates Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. after Sunday's Pocono 400.

"Well, he knew I wasn't going to [help him get the paper off his grille]," Earnhardt said in a Victory Lane interview on TV. "I mean, I got to try to win the race. We had a little temperature on our car too at the end. I don't know if we had something on the grille. Brad definitely had the better car and I am definitely owning up to that, but we won the race.

"We are definitely going to enjoy it. It goes into the books and helps us toward the Chase. We were there all day running great. We had a fast car, just never really got that track position until the end. You've got to be there and we were.

"Somebody had an issue, so we capitalized. I'm real proud of my team and especially [crew chief] Steve Letarte. This is his last year [with me]. I've never won here. I've never been here [in Victory Lane], this is amazing. I can mark this one off."

Keselowski was the class of the field early and he looked like he was going to be the easy winner as the laps wound down. He led four times for a race-high 95 of the 160 laps on the 2.5-mile triangular track. Earnhardt, on the other hand, led three times for 11 laps.

Keselowski still managed to finish second, but as the paper -- suggested to be a hot-dog wrapper -- clung to his car's grille shortly after the final restart with 10 laps to go, he related back to his team that his engine temperature was rising precipitously.

As he rushed toward the lapped car of Danica Patrick on Lap 155, he saw an opportunity to use the No. 10 as a pick to get his car cleaned off. It didn't work, broke his momentum and Earnhardt zoomed past.

Keselowski tried to mount another challenge, but just didn't have enough car to do it.

"Dale's car was just too good in clean air," Keselowski said. "He was probably better in clean air than we were, so there wasn't a lot I could do at that point."

And Keselowski wasn't going to second-guess his move, either, even though his engine ended up holding up. He was convinced it would have lasted in the lead.

"Oh yeah, we weren't going to make it," he said. "It was already starting to [fail]. It is just one of those deals."

Earnhardt had paper on his grille at the finish as well, but there was less of it compared to Keselowski's No. 2 car. And as Letarte pointed out in his postrace interview, having paper on the grille can actually help with downforce and give a car more speed -- as long as the engine doesn't blow up.

"My temperatures were going up, but I guess not as bad as Brad's," Earnhardt said. "I had a little bit of temperature, but nothing to worry about. We definitely had some red gauges, but they were still within good reason to stand on it and give it hell.

"I looked in the mirror and saw Brad didn't have his debris off, either. We were both going to chug along there and see who made it."

And now the pressure is really off for Earnhardt, as two victories guarantees him a Chase spot as long as he stays healthy and in the top 30 in points.

He even joked that his first win this year -- at the season-opener in Daytona -- already paid the dividend of not needing to test for the road-course races.

"Oh, yeah, we started out the season when we won at Daytona, man, it made the rest of the year a lot more relaxing, a lot easier, less stress and it makes it fun, because you can just go to the race track and just race and not worry about points," he said. "We went to -- we used to -- last year and every damned year we would test at those road courses, Road Atlanta and here and there, and work ourselves to death trying to figure out how to go faster at a road course, knowing damned good and well I wasn't going to run well because I don't know how to drive them.

"But I can run OK at the Glen every once in a while, but Sonoma -- it's embarrassing, man -- I haven't finished in the top 11 there ever. We just decided not to work that hard and just go there without a test and wing it, and we got teammates to test it and we'll see what they did and liked and we can go there with an attitude of it's not -- we don't have to dig and gouge for every single position and we don't have to worry if it's a total disaster or if it doesn't work out, if we get spun out on the last lap.

"We can just go have fun."

The rest of the top 10 in Sunday's race was largely made up of drivers out to have fun.

Previous winners Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin came in third and fourth, respectively. Winless rookie Kyle Larson was fifth. Larson, who won Saturday's ARCA Series race at Pocono, said he finished better than he expected, even if he still may need to use that new Camaro he bought to become a better shifter.

"To be honest with you, I did miss a couple shifts," Larson said. "Yeah, just twice, which is a lot better than probably it would have been if I didn't practice shifting a whole lot. But yeah, I mean, surprisingly there was only two times, was when I was battling people when I was pretty excited.

"I don't know, I thought it was a good day.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Jeff Gordon, Martin Truex Jr. and Jamie McMurray rounded out the top 10, with Newman, Truex and McMurray still looking for Victory Lane.

Now Earnhardt and the rest of the Sprint Cup circus head to Michigan, a place where Earnhardt has earned two of his 21 victories. Is back-to-back wins in the cards, such as his teammate Jimmie Johnson pulled off at Charlotte and Dover the previous two races?

Earnhardt just grinned and said confidently, "I don't want to be the new 48, I want to be the new 88."

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