LONG POND, Pa.--Every top-five finish brings Dale Earnhardt Jr. a step closer to a locked-in spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, but the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet SS didn’t seem particularly happy with his fifth-place run in Sunday’s GoBowling.com 400 at Pocono Raceway.
Earnhardt fought an annoying vibration in his car all weekend long but he solidified his hold on fifth place in the Cup standings with five races left before the Chase field is set at Richmond.
Still, "overjoyed" would not be an accurate description of Earnhardt’s mood when he climbed from his car after the race.
I felt good coming in here--thought we might win the race--but came up a little short.
"We changed every part in the car but the engine," Earnhardt said of the efforts of crew chief Steve Letarte and the 88 crew to solve the vibration issue. "I think we helped it a little bit today."
Earnhardt had qualified 25th with the same chassis he drove to a third-place finish at Pocono in June, but he gained track position through clever pit strategy and kept it.
"I felt good coming in here--thought we might win the race--but came up a little short," Earnhardt said. "We changed (the car) a little bit from the last time we were here to try and get it better. I don’t think we did.
"But I felt pretty good this weekend, real confident. But the weather set us back (with the rain that washed out both Saturday practices), and then all that vibration stuff… So we just had to shoot in the dark (Sunday)."
If it wasn't for bad luck
Trouble continued to haunt Denny Hamlin, who started ninth at Pocono but completed just 14 laps before his race ended with a hard crash in Turn 3.
It was the fifth DNF (did not finish) for Hamlin this season and the third in the last five races, all because of accidents.
Well, our car was a handful," said Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season after fracturing his first lumbar vertebra at Fontana, Calif. "I tried to fight through it until that competition caution."
"I was getting run over from behind and just holding up traffic," Hamlin said. "I just let off in the corner, and it just breaks loose. It’s what we’ve been fighting really the last seven weeks or so--just cannot get into the corners in our cars."
The wreck was particularly galling to Hamlin, who won twice from the pole at Pocono in his 2006 rookie season and added two more wins at the Tricky Triangle thereafter.
"I know how to drive this race track, and we have just not hit on what it takes here these last couple of months to get our speed where it needed to be," Hamlin said. "We were struggling again today."
Smoke rises from penalty
Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevy was better than a ninth-place car. Then again, the ninth-place finish wasn’t bad, given that Stewart was relegated to the rear of the field for speeding on entry to pit road on Lap 54.
From that point, the race was an uphill fight for the three-time champion, but Stewart credited crew chief Steve Addington with strategic calls that helped regain track position.
"Good strategy by the crew chief, because the driver screwed up today," Stewart said. "I got us the pit road speeding penalty that put us back there."
Stewart was running sixth late in the race, but a pair of cautions in the last 11 laps cost him.
Stewart remained 11th in the Cup standings with one victory, leaving him in the first of two provisional wild card positions.
"We had a solid day, and we’ve just got to keep clicking them off like this," Stewart said.
By Reid Spencer - NASCAR Wire Service