LONG POND — Each restart was another opportunity. For Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was the only possible path to victory.
Running second behind teammate Jimmie Johnson as the caution flags began piling up, Earnhardt took his best shot at the win on lap 151, cutting underneath the No. 48 for a brief moment before Johnson sped away.
“That,” crew chief Steve Letarte said, “was our only chance. To get him on a restart.”
It was the closest Earnhardt would come to victory. The Sprint Cup veteran spent the final nine laps — and one final restart — fending off the cars behind him to hold on for a third-place finish in Sunday’s Party in the Poconos 400.
“Those last restarts were kind of tough,” Earnhardt said. “Being on the inside in the front row, the guys behind you can get good runs on you and put you three-wide. I was really just more in defense mode there. If I had a shot at Jimmie by the time we got to (turn 1), that was a bonus.”
For Earnhardt, it was his fourth top-five finish of the season and the 10th top-10 finish of his career at Pocono Raceway. He heads into next week’s race at Michigan in fourth place in the points standings.
Earnhardt entered last year’s June race at Pocono on a four-year winless drought but used a top-10 finish to propel him to that long-awaited victory the following week at Michigan.
The circumstances aren’t exactly the same this season, but Earnhardt is hopeful for a similar bounce.
“Yeah, we’ve been carrying momentum for a good solid year now,” Earnhardt said. “We had better finishes last year, but we started the year off this year really good. We’ve just had a lot of problems since then and struggled to get good finishes.
“We’re all right. We know what we need to do. The confidence is there, and the fans can rest assured we feel like we’re on the right track.”
On Sunday, the No. 88 team got onto that path with a late charge.
With only one caution flag in the first 125 laps, NASCAR passed along the tidbit that the race had a shot to tie the track record for fewest cautions in a Cup race.
The jinx was on. Six more flags hit in the final 35 laps, giving Earnhardt and the field a shot at catching Johnson and his superior setup.
Adding a little extra drama to the scenario was the fact that Johnson had lost last week at Dover when he was penalized for passing race leader Juan Pablo Montoya too early on a restart. Johnson accused Montoya of deliberately pulling up in an attempt to draw a black flag on him.
While technically a legal tactic, Johnson called it a “loophole” in the rules on Friday. After winning on Sunday, he said he “really wanted to prove a point” by pulling the same stunt while leading during those late restarts.
“But I couldn’t do it to a teammate,” Johnson said, referring to Earnhardt, who was in second at the time.
As for the rest of the race, Earnhardt said he enjoys running on Pocono’s new surface, which repaved before the 2012 season.
Though he still has some minor issues with the track’s infamous tunnel turn, Earnhardt called the overhaul “just about perfect” and hopes Sunday can springboard him toward another shot at the Chase.
“I really like it,” Earnhardt said. “I think it actually widened out quite a bit from last year to this year. Other tracks that have been repaved haven’t sort of advanced the aging process that quickly, so I think this place is sitting in the catbird seat.
“This area is awesome. Love coming here, love racing here.”