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NASCAR Barometer: Junior Hits the Trifecta

C.J. Radune

C.J. Radune

Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the 2012 Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. flexed his muscle late in Sunday's GoBowling.com 400, leading the final segments of Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway to score his third victory of the season, and second at the track. The Hendrick Motorsports driver swept both races at the tricky triangle this season, this time holding off Kevin Harvick on the final restart.

Sunday's race saw a number of pit strategies play out due to multiple caution periods, and Earnhardt's was the one that claimed the day. Some of the afternoon's strongest contenders were ruled out early, and a sliding Denny Hamlin caused a crash reminiscent of a restrictor-plate race. That opening allowed some team strategies to unfold, pushing them upward in the running order.

The victory was Earnhardt's third of the season, second at Pocono, and Hendrick Motorsports fifth in a row at the Pennsylvania oval. Earnhardt started the season in the biggest way possible, and could be on his way to his first Sprint Cup championship.

UPGRADE

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt scored his third victory of the season with a solid effort Sunday. He wasn't the fastest car throughout the weekend, but Earnhardt pieced together the strategy necessary to sweep the 2014 Pocono races. The championship contender made sure that Hendrick Motorsports continued their domination at the Pennsylvania triangle, and added one more win to his tally before the Chase begins. Earnhardt is having the best season of his career, and now turns his focus toward another road course in Watkins Glen. The No. 88 driver has scored only three top-10 finishes at the New York circuit, but this season he is rewriting history. Earnhardt is at the top of his game, and will try to carry that momentum to Watkins Glen.

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon crossed the 1,000 laps-led mark Sunday at Pocono Raceway, a remarkable achievement for a driver close to the top of his game. The veteran driver was feeling the effects of lingering back problems earlier in the week, but showed no sign of slowing down once the green flag waved. The most recent Brickyard winner started with a top qualifying effort after solid practices, and went on to be one of the fastest cars in Sunday's race. Gordon probably should have won if teammate Earnhardt hadn't worked his way to the point late in Sunday's race. Gordon's four Watkins Glen wins are second only to Tony Stewart, and this championship contender should never be discounted on a road course.

Kevin Harvick -
Prior to Sunday Harvick had only led five laps at Pocono Raceway. He doubled that career total last weekend, leading another five and finishing second. Harvick, though fast, has not been the dominant driver he was early in the 2014 season. His performance last week is a big step in a return to form, though. Harvick was challenging Earnhardt all the way to the finish, and could have found himself in Victory Lane had circumstances been just slightly different. Though Harvick hasn't returned to the impressive speed he showed earlier in the year, he is making strides forward as the Chase approaches. He is a former winner at Watkins Glen, and could use this week's race to cap off his return at the top.

Joey Logano -
Teammate Brad Keselowski has had the upper hand in the Penske Racing garage recently. The former champion has worked his way into Victory Lane on multiple occasions while Logano has seemingly taken steps backward. Last weekend in Pocono saw the No. 22 come out on top, though. The young driver matched his championship-winning teammate throughout practice and qualifying, and bettered him in the race. While Keselowski was caught in the race's biggest crash, Logano cruised ahead out front of the danger. The young driver led 30 of the race's 160-lap distance, finishing third. Had circumstances been a bit different he may have found himself challenging for the win. Logano finished seventh in last year's visit to Watkins Glen and led briefly earlier this year at Sonoma Raceway.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch -
Busch has been missing opportunities to pick up another win as the Chase draws near. He had a car that was capable of challenging on Sunday, but lost a cylinder early in the running and was left out of contention. The No. 18 had solid practice runs and a decent starting spot, but lost his engine early in Sunday's race. The good news for this team is that Watkins Glen is the next race on the schedule. Busch won this race in 2013, leading almost a third of the laps. In total he has two wins at the New York road course, and has only failed to finish inside the top 10 there once. Busch, despite his misfortune last week, should be able to return to form this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson -
Signs weren't looking good for Johnson on Sunday. His qualifying effort was below par, and his practice speeds weren't necessarily good enough to warrant much confidence. Early in the 400 miles the No. 48 encountered trouble after losing a tire, putting him a lap down from which he quickly rebounded. Things after that weren't terrible, that is until he found himself in the wall. His contact after the halfway mark was enough to force him to the garage for extensive repairs, ending whatever hopes he had of salvaging a top finish. Johnson has been in a small slump the past few weeks, and his prospects don't get brighter this week. He has never won in Sprint Cup at Watkins Glen, and has an average finish of 12.8 from 12 career tries.

Danica Patrick -
Patrick was one of the early runners to encounter trouble Sunday. Her excellent qualifying effort was laid to waste when she scuffed the Pocono wall, subsequently losing a right-front tire on the following lap. Her miscue and the failure that resulted put her into the wall and behind the competition as her team made repairs. It was an early exit for the driver that should have been able to leverage her team for a solid top-15 effort on Sunday. The news doesn't get any better for Patrick this week at Watkins Glen either. Her only Sprint Cup start at the track gave her a 20th-place finish, while her effort at Sonoma earlier this summer gave her an 18th-place finish.

Matt Kenseth -
Once Denny Hamlin spun ahead of the pack and Brian Vickers moved to avoid him Kenseth was along for the ride. The No. 20 was caught up in a chain-reaction crash that eliminated a handful of drivers that had potential to notch a surprise victory on Sunday. After consecutive top-5 finishes leading to Pocono, Kenseth again is pushed back into a slump. The former champion continues to search for his first victory of the season. Kenseth's Watkins Glen resume does not include any top-5 finishes, however. His 14 career efforts at the rolling road course have only produced an average finish of 15.6, with four top-10 finishes. Those numbers are not inspiring, and Kenseth finds himself lacking the wins he wants as the Chase draws ever closer.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite being the favorite for Sunday's race win, Keselowski failed to live up to expectations and notched a 23rd-place finish, two laps behind the leaders. The No. 2 car was one of the many caught in the biggest crash of the race when Brian Vickers attempted to avoid a spinning Denny Hamlin. Keselowski was stuck in the middle behind two cars that lost control, and found himself caught in the middle of the melee. The damage pushed him behind where he should have been, and ultimately caught him multiple laps behind the leaders. Keselowski has only failed to finish inside the top-5 once at Watkins Glen, though. This could be just another track that the driver adds to his tally of victories.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Greg Biffle -
Not much was expected from Biffle ahead of Sunday's 400-mile race at Pocono. The veteran driver admitted that Roush Fenway Racing was still struggling to find speed, and had even consulted Penske Racing to see what the floundering Ford team might learn. Practice and qualifying indicated that there would be little to expect from any of the Roush competitors. Biffle turned those expectations onto their ears, though. The No. 16 had a wonderful race, leading 11 laps on the afternoon, and claiming his first top-10 finish since the road course of Sonoma. Additionally, this week's venue is the second road course of the season. Biffle has three top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen, along with his ninth-place finish at Sonoma earlier this year.