Pocono could start hot streak for Johnson, Earnhardt Jr.

8:11 PM, Jun 9, 2013   |    comments
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As network TV begins its season of incessant reruns, NASCAR's premier series is poised for its own summer repeat - co-starring Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

If the first annual stop at Pocono Raceway remains a reliable bellwether, the Hendrick Motorsports duo is catching fire again just as the mercury begins to climb.

"I feel like we have some clarity in what the car likes and what it wants," Johnson said after winning the Party at the Poconos 400. "We're getting smarter and smarter with it, and that leads into stretches where you can click off the wins and the finishes. Regardless if it's a short track or a big track, we have clarity right now, and as long as we can keep it, we'll be in good shape."

Johnson was in title-caliber form Sunday at the 2.5-mile track, leading 128 of 160 laps and easily beating Greg Biffle for his 63rd career victory and third at Pocono (but first since 2004). With his third win of the season, Johnson extended his lead in the standings to 51 points over Carl Edwards. That means he could skip a race and still be in first, and there's extra incentive because wife Chandra is due with their second child in mid-September.

"If Chani goes into labor early, I don't have to worry about Richmond," Johnson said, referring to the Sept. 7 race at Richmond International Raceway that is the "regular-season" finale before the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

If the five-time champion can mimic his summertime roll last year, he might be well positioned to skip a few races before the 10-race title run begins.

In 2012, a fourth at Pocono kick-started a stretch in which Johnson didn't finish worse than seventh in six of seven races.

Johnson seems even stronger this season, having led eight of 14 races with nine top 10s. If not for a late restart violation at Dover International Speedway, he likely would have been celebrating his second consecutive victory Sunday.

"Jimmie is switched on right now," said Chad Knaus, the only crew chief Johnson has had in 12 seasons driving the No. 48 Chevrolet. "He's as good as better than I've ever seen him."

It hasn't come as easy lately for Earnhardt, who improved two spots to fourth in the standings with a third place that was his first top five in eight races. NASCAR's most popular driver's No. 88 Chevy has lacked speed much of the season but had plenty of oomph at Pocono, running in the top five for virtually 400 miles.

It was reminiscent of last season when Earnhardt led 38 laps at Pocono and began a stretch of four top fives in six races. The exclamation mark was ending a four-year winless streak with a dominant victory at Michigan International Speedway (where the circuit heads next week).

"Hopefully we can do this throughout the summer and get ourselves in the Chase pretty comfortably," Earnhardt said. "Going to Michigan we've got a good package. It's been real similar to last year."

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It's not surprising when Earnhardt and Johnson mirror each other's results. Their cars are built and assembled side by side under the same roof at Hendrick's sprawling campus near Charlotte, N.C., and Knaus and No. 88 crew chief Steve Letarte have been working in tandem for nearly eight years.

"From the 48 and 88 shop, we've been working really hard to try to get our race cars better, and (Pocono) is a good venue to try to show how good your race cars are," Knaus said.

It's often a precursor for Indianapolis, whose flat corners and long straightaways are similar to the triangular track in Pennsylvania. Last year at Indy, Johnson dominated for his fourth Brickyard 400 victory while Earnhardt took the points lead with a fourth.

That success often stems from their crews feeding off each other, and Pocono was no exception. The setups beneath both cars Sunday were similar after Knaus and Letarte merged ideas during a weekend of truncated track time after practice and qualifying were canceled Friday by rain.

"They grow stronger and stronger each week," Johnson said of Earnhardt's team. "They're great teammates; they help us out. They're clicking. They're doing a great job."

The knowledge yielded by the partnership is perhaps a bigger edge for Earnhardt, who still is seeking his first championship,

"I get to lean on them and know exactly what's hap

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