Dale Earnhardt Jr. is accustomed to being in select company. This weekend, he seeks to join NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison and Tim Richmond as the only drivers to win three consecutive races at Pocono Raceway.
But Earnhardt, who turned Friday’s fourth-fastest practice lap in preparation for Sunday’s Axalta “We Paint Winners” 400 (1 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1), knows three in a row is a lot to ask.
“It’s difficult to win one,” Earnhardt said. “We won those two races by having some great pit strategy. Steve (former crew chief Letarte) got real aggressive on his pit calls and I think that’s what definitely is going to put you in position to win.”
Earnhardt says the nature of racing at Pocono gives crew chiefs with cars strong enough to lead the race, the option of employing unusual pit strategies. This year, those calls will be up to his first-year crew chief Greg Ives.
“You kind of call this race in reverse,” Earnhardt said. “The tires are pretty tough here and durable, so there’s not a whole lot of fall-off and you can call a race sort of like a road course: Put yourself up front and it makes it pretty difficult to get around you if you’ve got a good car.
“Still, everything’s got to fall in the right place to allow you to make those choices. It worked out great for us last year. (But) we also had a fast car. We ran pretty well, but there were about eight of us in either of those races who could have won.”
If any factor is in Earnhardt’s favor, it’s Hendrick Motorsports recent run of success at Pocono. Hendrick has won the last five Sprint Cup events on the 2.5-mile triangle with Jeff Gordon (2012), Jimmie Johnson (2013), Kasey Kahne (2013) and Earnhardt (2014 sweep).
"We’ve got four fast cars,” Earnhardt said. “This is a horsepower race track where engines can make a difference and I feel like over the last several years, we’ve had one of the best engine programs in the sport. Your car really, really shines here and we’ve got some of the best equipment in the garage.”
Seven drivers, including Johnson (2004) and Denny Hamlin (2006) have won both Sprint Cup events at Pocono in the same season. But success one season hardly ensures success the next. Johnson went nine years after his sweep at Pocono and Hamlin has been up and down since 2006, although he did post consecutive victories in 2009 and 2010 Sprint Cup races.
“I kind of put sweeping here in the same box as sweeping at Daytona or Talladega,” Johnson said. “There are just so many circumstances out of your control at this track. … There are always long green-flag runs and varying strategies. The teams that don’t have the raw speed to race for the win will roll the dice. There are a lot of moving targets. It’s not just a straight-up downforce-style race and I think that increases the difficulty to win here regularly.”