BROOKLYN, Mich. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. raced to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in four years, ending a 143-race winless streak Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
The victory came almost exactly four years to the day after his last trip to Victory Lane in a Cup race. That also was in Michigan on June 15, 2008. He led for 36 laps last weekend at Pocono but made a late stop for gas instead of trying to stretch the fuel to the end.
On Sunday, it wasn’t even close. He pulled away over the final 25 laps of the 400-mile race, and his black Chevrolet with the green No. 88 finally crossed the finish line 5.393 seconds ahead of Tony Stewart.
“Those last 15 laps were the longest laps ever,’’ Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt already had 11 top-10 finishes this season and was second in the points standings entering this race. But after another close run at Pocono, the questions kept coming about his dry spell. That’s now over.
“Dale had the fastest car all day,’’ Stewart said. “It’s not a national holiday, guys. This morning they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we’re all in a state of mourning now, because he’s broke that string now, so I don’t know what we’re all supposed to think.’’
Earnhardt remains second to Matt Kenseth in the standings. His 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history.
Like his last victory in Michigan, this one came on Father’s Day - fitting for the driver whose father has been so revered around NASCAR circles. Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. “Junior’’ is now stock-car racing’s most popular driver - a fact not lost on him in the moments after the win.
“To do it for my fans - they stuck behind me for all these years. I know exactly what they’ve been thinking about and how long they’ve been wanting us to get to Victory Lane,’’ Earnhardt said. “This was for them. I appreciate their loyalty and their support. We wouldn’t have made it back to Victory Lane without it.’’
Earnhardt moved past pole winner Marcos Ambrose on lap 70 to take the lead, and although Stewart would lead for a bit, Earnhardt was in front again not long after the race’s halfway point.
Earnhardt led on lap 171, after a pitting cycle. With 25 laps remaining, he was ahead by 1.978 seconds. With 10 remaining, he had built a 5.468-second cushion.
The end was almost anticlimactic - and it was certainly a relief for Earnhardt. After finally winning, Earnhardt stopped in front of the grandstand and spun his wheels in front of thousands of fans who were on their feet screaming.
It was the 19th Cup victory of Earnhardt’s career and second in 159 starts for Hendrick Motorsports. He had 17 victories in 291 races for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
Kenseth finished third in the race, which included eight cautions for 39 laps. After practice and qualifying speeds soared over 200 miles per hour on the newly paved surface, teams switched left-side tires for the actual race. There were problems almost from the start, when Kurt Busch - back from a one-week suspension for verbally abusing a media member - went into an early spin.
Joey Logano, who won last week’s Sprint Cup race and Saturday’s Nationwide race, was out of this one after a multicar crash that brought out a caution from laps 127-132. Almost immediately after the restart, Denny Hamlin’s Toyota went sliding across the grass and caught fire. The flames were extinguished and Hamlin got out of the vehicle safely.
Ambrose, who finished ninth after a qualifying lap of over 203 m.p.h., was the first Cup driver to win the pole at over 200 since 1987.