Transmission Woes Spoil Strong Run at Pocono


Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 17 laps early at Pocono Raceway before a broken transmission sent the No. 88 Chevrolet to the garage for repairs. Earnhardt maintained the Sprint Cup Series points lead with a 32nd-place finish.

Race: Pennsylvania 400 at Pocono Raceway
Track Specs: 2.5-mile speedway / 160 Laps
Weather: Cloudy / Rain forces early halt to race
Race Winner: Jeff Gordon
Dale Jr.’s Finish: 32nd

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s record-setting run of consecutive lead-lap finishes came to an end Sunday at Pocono Raceway when transmission troubles knocked him off the pace and into the garage 50 laps into the Pennsylvania 400. Earnhardt had led 17 laps and was in second place when the mechanical problems began. The No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/National Guard team replaced the transmission and returned to finish the race 18 laps down in 32nd.

Earnhardt entered Sunday’s event as the only driver to have completed all the laps this year – a single-season record that now stops at 20 races. He was tied with Jeff Gordon for the most consecutive lead-lap finishes over multiple seasons – a record that he and Gordon now shares at 21.

Junior started the race eighth but was in the top-five by the second lap. He passed Kurt Busch for third on lap six, blew by Juan Pablo Montoya for second on lap nine, and took the lead from Denny Hamlin on lap 12. Earnhardt led through the first round of pit stops and fell to second only due to Brad Keselowski’s variant pit strategy. When Keselowski finally pitted, Earnhardt returned to the point.

Jimmie Johnson took the lead away from Earnhardt on lap 39. The No. 88 Chevrolet was in second position when the transmission gave way 11 laps later. Off the pace, Junior was forced to drive his car to garage for a transmission change.

Jeff Gordon won the Pennsylvania 400, his first victory in what has been a tumultuous season for the four-time champion. The victory gives all Hendrick Motorsports teams at least one win in 2012, although this one came at the misfortune of fellow HMS teammate Johnson. With rain threatening, the field took a restart on lap 91. Johnson was the leader, but his Chevrolet wobbled getting into the first turn and caused a chain-reaction pile-up that took out contenders Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth. Johnson was able to save his car, but he fell all the way back to 14th.

Gordon, on the other hand, had taken that restart outside the top-five, but he inherited the lead when all the front-runners checked up to miss the squirrely cars of Johnson and Kenseth. The race never went back green, as a steady rain came in and forced an end to the Pennsylvania 400 61 laps before its intended finish.

Earnhardt retains the point lead, although his 14-point cushion over Kenseth is now five points. Third-place Greg Biffle is six points back and fourth-place Johnson is merely eight points off the lead.

"We had a really good car, and even though Jimmie passed us, I felt we could do some things to maybe make the car faster. But I lost third and fourth gear, so we had to change the transmission. I know the guys in the transmission shop at Hendrick are disappointed. We put (the transmission) in yesterday. During qualifying it was fine. When we restarted it was kind of aggressive and I felt a bit of a vibration. The car was just really out of time and it started missing some shifts and difficult to get in gear and things like that. Finally coming out of the tunnel (turn), it didn't have fourth gear. And then I went to third and I didn't have third.

“We had a good run going. This Chevrolet was pretty fast. We definitely would’ve had a shot to win. I’m proud of my team, and I know Hendrick Motorsports never has these types of problems. It’s just one of those things. I’m happy that Jeff won. They’ve had a crazy year and really needed this to get back in the Chase picture.”

Pocono Race Report
Start 8th
Finish 32nd
Laps Completed (Led) 80 of 98 (17)
Standings (from leader) 1st (+5)
Condition Running