By JEFF WOLFE
Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t have to answer the “why?” question after Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Michigan International Speedway.
For the first time in four years he got to answer the “how?” questions as in “how did you win?”
Earnhardt Jr. broke his 143-race winless streak at the track he last won on and on the same holiday, Father’s Day.
And maybe just as important as the fact that he won, was the way he won. He didn’t need to gamble on fuel, or use a different pit strategy to work his way up front, or a late caution to help him stay up front. He had the fastest car of the day, leading a race-high 95 laps.
Earnhardt Jr. showed that dominance on the final two restarts after yellow flags, and then in leading 65 of the final 74 laps, only losing the lead due to the field cycling through on green flag pit stops. But even at that, those final laps were a bit nerve-wracking to him.
“I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, this was the worst – that’s the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what’s going to happen or how you were going to lose,” Earnhardt Jr. said with a laugh.
“I was just thinking, ‘man, those laps could not go by fast enough.’ I was like – I’ve got a big lead, I’m going to take it easy – no, I want to run it hard, get it over with. So I was just in there going crazy, thinking – and I’m looking all around the racetrack hoping there’s no debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I was just waiting on something to happen. So that was terrifying to be honest with you.”
There was some justification for Earnhardt Jr.’s fears. He had been close to winning on several occasions, including seven second-place finishes in this four-year span. He ran out of gas while leading on the final lap of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte last year. As recently as last week at Pocono, he appeared to have the fastest car late in the race, but had to surrender the lead to pit for fuel.
There were no such concerns Sunday.
When Earnhardt Jr. pitted for the final time with 36 laps remaining, second-place Tony Stewart came in right behind him. At the time, Earnhardt Jr.’s lead had been less than a second over the No. 14. But Stewart, the defending champion, had to stay in his pit for about an extra two seconds to get the second can of fuel in. Once all of the green flag stops were done, Earnhardt Jr.’s lead was more than three seconds over Stewart and by the final laps of the race it had increased to more than five seconds.
“I saved a little in my pocket in the last 50 laps and ran only as hard as I thought I needed to,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “and at the end of the race, this thing was a rocket and I couldn’t slow it down. It was so fast.”
Earnhardt’s 19th career victory also continued a recent stretch of success for Hendrick Motorsports. Jimmie Johnson gave team owner Rick Hendrickshis 200th career win at Darlington, then won the non-points All-Star Race and at Dover two weeks ago. Kasey Kahne won the Coca-Cola 600 three weeks ago. The Hendrick streak was interrupted by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Joey Logano at Pocono last week.
“Well, you know, a little bit of a slow start, but we had a lot of speed,” said Hendrick, who could not attend Sunday’s race. “Then we get the 200th win and then the All-Star race, and Kasey gets a win, Jimmie gets another one, and I thought Dale had a real shot last week at Pocono. But to get it this weekend, that’s outstanding. Its like a huge load off our backs.”
A huge part of Sunday’s race for all of the teams was adjusting to a new tire with only an hour of practice late Saturday as high speeds on the newly repaved track were causing some teams’ tires to blister. Some teams still reported problems with blistering on the right rear Sunday and it was something Earnhardt Jr. was particularly conscious of late in the race.
“I wasn’t very confident after the practice last night,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I was worried about tire issues and stuff like that, even late in the race because our car kind of started turning better, and I was thinking, man, I’m going to work the right rear a little harder.”
Stewart credited his team for working hard. Even though he qualified seventh before the tire switch, he pointed out that they weren’t confident after the late Saturday practice, being 28th on the speed chart.
“We had a fast car all week until the Happy Hour session last night, and you know, we just couldn’t get ahold of the racetrack,” Stewart said. “But I’m really proud of (crew chief) Steve Addington and our engineers. They did a great job overnight and we started the day pretty much toward the front and never really lost that track position all day. We had a pretty good car that we could pass with. It was hard to pass, but it wasn’t impossible. But like I say, I was really, really proud of our guys.”
Rounding out the top-10 in front of an estimated crowd of 82,000 fans were Matt Kenseth in third followed by Greg Biffle, Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick. The race had eight cautions for 39 laps.
And Earnhardt Jr., voted NASCAR’s most popular driver for the past nine years, was glad his fan base could throw caution to the wind for at least this week.
“I know there was a lot of people that were happy today,” he said. “I could tell — I felt the fan base. I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately. As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do. I just wish I could see it all at once.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s next chance at victory will be next Sunday on the road course at Sonoma, CA. Pre-race coverage starts at 2pm EDT on TNT, while the race coverage itself gets underway at 3pm.
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