Originally Published: June 16, 2014

SportsCenter: Junior aiming for Daytona sweep

Sprint Cup: Hendrick shows dominance

By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

NASCAR's revised championship format, which almost guarantees a place in the 16-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup for race winners, made road course specialists focus even harder than usual on the Toyota Save-Mart 350.

Yet, as so often happens, a driver not perceived as a road racing ace ended up prevailing at Sonoma Raceway as Carl Edwards scored a much-needed victory for Roush Fenway Racing. It was Edwards' first victory in 22 Sprint Cup Series road course starts.

As for the road course specialists? AJ Allmendinger qualified on the front row for JTG Daugherty Racing and led 35 of the 110 laps, but he ended up on the wrong side of a collision with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wound up 35th. Marcos Ambrose finally found his way to the front after starting 23rd, but he immediately lost the lead to Edwards on a Lap 85 restart and faded to eighth place at the checkered flag in a Richard Petty Motorsports Ford that trailed off badly over a long green-flag run.

Although Edwards' second win of the 2014 season and the plight of the road racers were the two main storylines from Sonoma, the underlying theme of the weekend was the continued strength of Hendrick Motorsports on any kind of track.

Sprint Cup championship points leader Jeff Gordon finished a close and charging second to Edwards. Afterward, Gordon said he believed he would have won had he not made a costly mistake at Turn 4, blunting his momentum with four laps remaining.

Earnhardt, who had never achieved a top-10 finish at Sonoma, was right on Gordon's rear bumper at the finish, and Kasey Kahne worked through the field after a disappointing qualifying that left him 30th on the grid to claim sixth place, one spot ahead of six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Hendrick might not have won Sonoma, but, with four cars in the top seven, the team had plenty to be proud of. Gordon believes that Hendrick's consistent strength at every kind of circuit, rather than emphasis on one type of track (such as the 1.5-mile intermediate speedways that make up half the 10-race Chase) will make the team a serious championship threat.

 Dale Earnhardt Jr
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesHendrick Motorsports placed four drivers in the top seven at Sonoma, including Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s third-place finish -- his best-ever at Sonoma.

"It's certainly the most consistent, in terms of great cars that I've had going week in and week out, to have cars that are capable of either winning or running up front," Gordon said after the race. "I'm very confident in what I'm getting behind the wheel of every weekend, and that just is because of all the hard work that's going on at Hendrick and all the data and work that everybody behind the scenes is doing, as well as Alan [Gustafson, his crew chief] and our engineers.

"I'm just working really well with them, clicking with them," he added. "The cars are just really, really good, and that's making a lot of fun for me."

The fact that Earnhardt ran in the top 10 almost all day at what was statistically one of his worst tracks demonstrated the sweet handling of the Hendrick cars on the undulating Sonoma layout. Earnhardt threw his Chevrolet around with abandon, hopping curbs and shaving apexes to mix it up with much more experienced road racers.

Earnhardt gave a lot of credit to his crew chief, Steve Letarte, who adopted a relaxed approach to the weekend. The No. 88 team skipped a test session at Sonoma and did very little development work at other road courses where NASCAR teams routinely test, such as Road Atlanta and Virginia International Raceway.

"We sort of relied on our teammates a little bit that tested, and all that helped the most -- really leaning on Jeff and those guys, kind of leaning on that and just trusting what we were seeing in the data," Earnhardt said.

"It really gave us a bit of a better attitude when we got here, and I think that helped us be more productive on Friday. That's really important during those two practices to get everything you can, and if I get frustrated, Steve gets frustrated, and we just don't really figure anything out. We stayed calm, and I felt like we put a good car on the racetrack today."

Letarte's masterstroke Sunday was calling Earnhardt in for fresh tires during the final caution of the race on Lap 93. That gave his driver Goodyear rubber that was at least 12 laps fresher than most of his competitors' tires, and Junior put it to good use, carving up to third place in the final 20 laps.

"I told Steve I think I figured out the trick to being a really, really good crew chief is to call the season like it's your last, because his strategy is aggressive and a little bit out of the box," Earnhardt said with a smile of his retiring crew chief. "That pays off in most cases because if you do everything everybody else is doing, you're racing a lot more people trying to do everything else they're doing. So when you do something different and get off the pattern pitwise, get off the strategy and stuff, it allows you to be a lot more aggressive.

"Aside from holding a trophy, this is like a win for us," he added. "I've been in the top 10 in a lot of these races with two or three laps to go, but we've just never been able to finish. So to be clear of the mess and just have an advantage with the tires at the end, there was a lot of confidence, and knowing we were going to be able to wrap it up felt really good."

The two road races and the three restrictor-plate races were expected to offer drivers the biggest opportunity for a wild-card entry into the Chase, but three of those five events haven't produced any surprise winners. That makes Saturday's 400-mile Daytona night race and the Aug. 10 road racing tilt at Watkins Glen "last chance" opportunities in a way.

"We fought hard, led some laps and got ourselves into position at the end, but that's all we had," said Ambrose, a two-time winner at Watkins Glen who will need a race win to make the Chase unless he makes up a lot of ground from his current 21st place in the standings.

"I was just hanging on at the end. I burned the rear tires up and the front tires up, and we just didn't have enough for them. We came here with a commitment to try to look after our tires and had a package that wasn't necessarily the fastest, but we thought might have kept our tires better than the rest.

"It didn't quite work out that way."


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