LONG POND - Dale Earnhardt Jr. certainly got things going in the right direction at the Nascar Sprint Cup Series final practice on Friday afternoon.
Junior started where he left off a couple months ago at the Pocono 400, showing the same consistent speeds Friday that he did that weekend. NASCAR's new point leader was a top the practice speeds leader board with a time of 50.721 equivalent to 177.441 mph.
Earnhardt Jr. has been good at Pocono so far this season and dominated the race in June, leading the most laps of any driver with 36. A late call by Dale Jr. and his crew chief Steve Latarte to come in for fuel didn't pay off and he had to fight his way back to eighth, while other drivers stayed out and took the risk.
However, Earnhardt's practice time shows they still have the speed they had in June, which means come Sunday the No. 88 will be a serious contender to win the race.
"We were a pretty good car the last time we were here," said Earnhardt Jr. "I felt like we had a real fast car in the race. I'm just ready to go try it out and see what we've got. It should be a good weekend."
Dale Jr. is a top the NSCS standings for the first time since 2004 and is excited to be there. Many times people believe that being in the points lead with this many races left doesn't really mean all that much. Earnhardt Jr. believes different.
"I think a lot of people downplay it," said Dale Jr. "I think it means the same to those other drivers but they down play it because the guys that are saying that may find themselves in the point lead or battling for it more often that I have been. It's been a long time since I was in the points lead. It's been forever, I can't even recall the last time we were even in the conversation about the championship. So these things are really validating the effort and work we've done. We've worked really hard."
Hendrick Motorsports looks to be strong just like they were a week ago at Indianapolis. Earnhardt Jr. (1), Jeff Gordon (8), and Jimmie Johnson (10) were all in the top 10 when final practice concluded on Friday.
Jeff Gordon needs a win badly with only six races to go until the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. Gordon is sitting in the 15th spot in the standings and needs some victories to jump into one of the wild card spots.
"Wins are paramount right now," said Gordon. "I really like what we saw here the last time we were here. Anytime there is a repave you're not exactly sure what the conditions are going to be like. So, I was very pleased to see the type of racing that we had here last time out, plus the fact that we had really good speed in our car. We've just got to eliminate mistakes and continue to put for the effort we've been putting out. Eliminate the mistakes, put a whole race together and there's no doubt this team can win."
One of the biggest stories in NASCAR recently has been the dismissal of AJ Allemendinger from Penske Racing. Allmendinger was the driver of the No. 22 Pennzoil/Shell team that has been a force over the last few seasons. Allmendinger was suspended for failing a drug test and violating NASCAR's banned substance rule. The dismissal came after a second drug test that was used as a back-up also failed.
Insert former Indy Car star Sam Hornish Jr., who will be driving for Penske in the No. 22 for the foreseeable future. Hornish Jr. was successful in the Indy Car ranks, but hasn't been able to bring that success to NASCAR. However, Hornish Jr. is performing pretty well in the Nationwide Series this year ranking fourth in points and is looking forward to the opportunity to run Sprint Cup full-time once again.
"I feel like we've got some really good opportunities here," said Hornish Jr. "We're just trying to maintain everything and not get stressed out about it because that's not going to help anything. Something good happened to me at the end of last season. We got the opportunity to go full-time Nationwide racing and you know we're doing pretty good over there. Now we've got the opportunity to go Cup racing too so just trying to take both things and run with and enjoy it as best I can because it's a good feeling to be in a little bit of demand."