|Happy Fathers Day!! Junior snaps 143 winless streak at Michigan (Getty)|
Earnhardt rallied from a pit stop on lap 11 that dropped his No. 88 Chevrolet to 37th. Crew chief Steve Letarte made two suspension adjustments that seemed to bring the car to life, and Earnhardt was helped by two competition cautions that bunched up the field.
He took his first lead on lap 70, breezing by pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose after whizzing past Greg Biffle in second a lap earlier, and he was able to build big leads under long green-flag runs.
Earnhardt pitted from the lead with 36 laps to go and took two tires and returned to the track with a 1.5-second cushion over Tony Stewart then increased that lead to more than five seconds as the final laps ticked off.
Stewart finished second. Matt Kenseth, Biffle and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.
"Good job, man," Earnhardt radioed to his crew after he crossed the finish line. "I know you guys have been waiting on that one. I know I have."
Earnhardt didn't seem to give himself a shot at his 19th career victory after an emergency practice Saturday scheduled by NASCAR because of a switch of left-side tires for the Sprint Cup race. After qualifying 17th on the old tire, he struggled in practice on the new tire and was limited to making only 26 laps because Hendrick Motorsports was concerned about putting too much stress on his No. 88 Chevrolet.
The tire drove "like it's 6 years old," Earnhardt complained. "I'd like to practice more, but I can't. My car ain't as good as I want it to be, but I can't run more laps. This ain't cool."
But it was another magical day in Michigan for NASCAR's most popular driver, whose last Cup victory also occurred at the 2-mile oval four years and two days ago, ending a 76-race winless streak.
That the win came on Father's Day carried extra significance for the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
During a Wednesday interview with USA TODAY Sports, Earnhardt Jr. said he was getting close enough to a checkered flag to envision it.
"I daydream about it all the time," he said. "I just think it'll be a lot more release, a lot more relief and happiness. The guys I'm with and the team I'm with, we haven't experienced that together, and that'll be a great feeling to win for the first time with these guys that I've been working with that I haven't won with before. It'll just be an amazing experience."
Earnhardt is off to one of the best starts of his career — six top-five finishes and 12 top-10s in the first 15 starts of 2012.
"I feel better right now than I have in the last several years when we weren't competing well," Earnhardt told reporters Thursday at Michigan. "We were miles from winning. We were so far away from being able to compete that that was a tough question to answer. Now, it just feels like it's right around the corner. So I'm getting excited. I'm getting more and more excited the more we run this year. The last couple of weeks we seem to have improved more as a team."
Earnhardt said he didn't mind answering the incessant questions about when his next win would come because "it hasn't been that incessant. I feel like it's just a realistic inquiry, and I feel pretty comfortable answering that question. And I've been honest.
"When you ask me why we haven't won, I feel like I've told you how terrible we might have been. I'm just telling you my gut feeling. But I don't feel like (the media) have asked the question too many times because I think that if you weren't asking that kind of question, I'd be a little worried that nobody gives a dang when you're going to win."
Michigan Quicken Loans 400 Results
Comments on Junior's Win From Stewart and Kenseth
“It’s no different than anybody else that does it — it’s not a national holiday, guys,” Stewart said. “This morning they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we’re all in a state of mourning now, ’cause he’s broke that string now, so I wonder what we’re all supposed to think.”
Kenseth, Earnhardt’s longtime friend, was more gracious in his assessment of the breakthrough victory.
“This year you could see it going to be a matter of time,” Kenseth said. “They’ve really been the guys — that 88 has had a ton of speed. They haven’t always gotten the finishes (because of) circumstances, but they’ve been battling up there in the top five each and every week. They’ve finished every lap.
“I’m really happy for him to get that win. The championship part, I think they’re definitely a contender. They’ve been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter what size or shape the racetrack. I think they’re definitely, at this point in the season, one of the favorites.”
|“Winning races is all you ever want,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “You work real hard to get there, and I’ve got to thank (team owner) Rick Hendrick, the whole organization, really, for sticking with me. (Getty)|
|“They could have picked another route, but they stuck with me, and we’re back in Victory Lane. I appreciate everybody’s support — Rick, the company, the fans, my team . . . everybody.” (Getty)|