If you ever wondered if you'll ever see the day when Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking the points lead would be an afterthought, Sunday was it.
Lost amidst the contact between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin and the scuffle between Logano and Stewart, Junior drove past the crash to finish second, and thanks to the relative struggles of Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, takes a 12 point lead atop the standings into the Easter off weekend.
After working his way up into the top 10 in the second half of Sunday's race, Junior's march towards the front stalled out. But when Clint Bowyer's engine expired with 16 laps to go, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte made the decision to pit. But the entire field didn't make that same move. The top six stayed out. Those closest to the cars with fresh tires were easy targets, and over those last 11 laps, Junior was able to dice his way through the field.
"I'm not sure exactly‑‑ when we would take two tires, our car drove really bad. It just didn't like that old left rear on there, and it would‑‑ we'd just get really, really loose," Earnhardt Jr. said. "So that was giving me some problems. And we were fading there at the end of the race, but we got an opportunity to fix it when we got that late caution.
"But yeah, we just stick together. We got, we were pretty good at closing races, something I never really was good at for years, and now we're doing it as good as anybody. Just riding the wave; just real happy with how things are going for our team."
It's the most consistent start of Junior's career. In 2004, he won two of the first five races, but thanks to a 35th place finish at Las Vegas, was second in the standings after the fifth race. This year, Junior's only led 47 laps (all at Phoenix), but he's netted 77 positions from where he started in five races and has finished 2nd, 5th, 7th, 6th and 2nd. Not bad at all.
Keselowski started at the back of the pack because of an engine change during practice. He quickly made his way through the field, but hit the wall when he and others got in the oil from Timmy Hill's car. That blunted the speed that he had shown and thanks to a late race issue, finished 23rd.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus struggled to find the right balance on the No. 48 all day and were mainstays in the back half of the top 20. But like Junior, Johnson also came down pit road on that final caution flag and took advantage of fresh tires to finish 12th. He's in third place, 16 points back.
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