NASCAR's most famous and popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., was finally back to winning ways this weekend at Michigan International Speedway, claiming victory in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
It's his first win in just over four years - with Michigan also being the scene of that previous victory, too. But as it turned out, the way that he'd won this time could hardly have been any more different than it had been back in 2008.
"That race we won four years ago was a fuel-mileage deal," recalled Earnhardt. "Today we just whupped 'em. That felt good!"
That was a fair assessment of his performance in a race that had seen him lead for 95 of the 200 laps, including the final run of 30 laps to the chequered flag during which time he'd just been hoping and praying that nothing would go wrong to deprive him of this long-awaited return to winning ways.
"That was the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go," Earnhardt admitted. "I kept wondering what was going to happen, how you were going to lose. Those last 15 laps couldn't go by fast enough.
"I was in there, just going crazy. I'm looking all around the race track, looking for debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a big piece of metal laying in the middle of the race track," he said. "I was just waiting for something to happen. That was terrifying, to be honest with you."
The anxiety had been shared by his car owner Rick Hendrick, who wasn't present at Michigan because he was at home with his family for Father's Day. But that didn't mean he wasn't living through it with his driver and team: "I was doing laps around my couch, trying to end this race," he said later. "I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen."
It hadn't exactly looked like a promising race for Earnhardt coming into the race. He'd qualified in the midfield in 17th place, but been very unhappy with the last minute decision by NASCAR and Goodyear to change the tyres to a harder compound to combat blistering on the newly repaved two-mile oval which was seeing speeds of over 200mph in practice and qualifying. According to the drivers, that change rendered practically all of their set-up work prior to the race essentially pointless.
Marcos Ambrose had won pole position over Kevin Harvick with the fastest qualifying lap in NASCAR Sprint Cup in the last quarter century at 203.241mph and led the field to green two hours later than expected at 3pm after morning showers had left the track needing to be dried before the race could get underway. Because the rain had washed the track clean - and in any case it was a new surface and there was the question mark of the new tyres - there were two competition cautions planned in for laps 25 and 50 to check progress.
Long before either of those there were two genuine cautions: Kurt Busch spun out on lap 2 and clipping David Gilliland on the way, damaging both cars. There was a second caution on lap 10 for Josh Wise's engine going up in smoke, and in between those cautions Trevor Bayne had also had engine problems and been forced to park the Wood Brothers #21 early.
“I have no idea what it was yet," said Wise of his exit. "Something went through the pan and that is all we know right now. It was a pretty big boom. It is a bummer. This motor we have run it quite a bit so it is not like it is a new motor that is blowing up or anything."
Bayne was also disappointed, saying that his car had been looking particularly good coming into the race: "It seems like nothing like this happens on a day you are running bad. As soon as you have a fast race car and feel like you are in the hunt, something comes up," he sighed.
"I didn't even get to break a sweat," he said of his early exit. "I don't know what happened here. I know we put some extra miles and extra heat cycles on it yesterday. I don't know if that has anything to do with it. Maybe we would have just expired later in the race. It is tough."
Greg Biffle now had the lead over Ambrose and held it through to the first of the competition cautions, which allowed Matt Kenseth to take the lead over Ambrose during the pit stops after Biffle had a slow stop and fell back to seventh. Kenseth and Ambrose still led by the time the second competition caution came out to mark the end of the first quarter, but Biffle got his bounce back this time through pit lane and emerged as the leader for the restart.
Further back, the cars looking strong included the Hendrick cars of Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson - who had started from the back after an overnight engine change - as well as the Joe Gibbs Racing #18 driven by Kyle Busch which had taken just 33 laps to overcome a miserable 34th place on the starting grid to make his way all the way up to seventh. Mark Martin was also flying in the Michael Waltrip Racing #55, while after the restart the top five also featured Penske's Bra Keselowski and Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya.
The pressure for someone to make a breakthrough built up until Ambrose and Earnhardt blew past a loose-handling Biffle on lap 70, with Earnhardt claiming the lead for the first time of the afternoon on lap 74 and looking mighty strong as he did so - not to mention looking like a distant cousin of the Le Mans Nissan DeltaWing in its Dark Knight Rising
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A debris caution just as the midfielders started to make green flag fuel stops allowed everyone a chance to cycle through pit lane. For Kyle Busch, it was a far longer stop than he'd been expecting, as the engine started to show blatant signs of blowing up and forced him to go to the garage area instead. The JGR team got it patched up and out again, but over 40 laps down.
At the restart, Earnhardt found himself contending for the lead at the green flag with Tony Stewart - and the current Cup champion nailed it. Earnhardt kept second ahead of Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle as the race reached the midway point, making it safe in the event that the earlier rain showers had returned - not that the weather radar was suggesting anything like that happening.
Stewart and Earnhardt were pulling well away from the rest of the field, but Stewart's purple patch was also on the wane allowing Earnhardt to blast past him on lap 109, some ten laps before a round of green flag pit stops got underway. Juan Montoya was one of the few not to have pitted - and was therefore out in the lead - when the sixth caution of the afternoon came out on lap 121 for a second spin by Kurt Busch.
Earnhardt was battling with Gordon for the lead at the restart when a major accident broke out behind them on the backstretch: sparked by David Gilliland getting loose and having a moment, Joey Logano had reacted to try avoiding the #38 and ended up heavily wrecked against the wall. Kasey Kahne had no where to go but right into the heart of the accident as well. Kahne was at least able to limp the #5 back to pit lane, but Logano was comprehensively done for the day, just 24 hours after winning at Michigan in the Nationwide Series race.
With Kyle Busch already effectively out of contention from his earlier engine failure, this was the second blow of the day for JGR: and the the third came quick on its heels at the restart on lap 132 when the remaining team member Denny Hamlin spun off at turn 4 after contact with Ryan Newman - and the right hand side of the #11 promptly burst into flames as it tried to make it onto pit lane. That left Hamlin scrambling to get out of the smoke-filled cockpit with help from crew members from Ryan Newman and Kyle Busch's pit stalls, while safety officials fired every fire extinguisher in their possession in the car's direction.
"I thought for a second there I was okay [but] something exploded in the front, and it caught on fire," said Hamlin afterwards. "I've never actually been in that position before," he added. "I'd seen it with other guys, but I've never known what it's actually like. But it gets hot!
"One good thing at least is that Ryan's guys came and got me out, and a couple of the #18 guys," he continued. "NASCAR is a family, and any time anyone is in trouble, everyone is going to try to help. It's good that those guys were around and willing to take a chance."
Earnhardt led Gordon, Bowyer, Stewart and Biffle at the third restart attempt in the space of 15 laps. This was more successful - so much so that the race would now run green all the way to the end - and Stewart got the best jump of all to quickly move into second spot behind Junior.
Everyone needed to make one more pit stop for fuel and tyres, and that happened under green around lap 165, after which Earnhardt was once again restored to the lead this time with a gap of around a second and building rapidly over Stewart, who looked comfortably in charge of the rest of the field headed by Biffle, Johnson and Kenseth as the laps wound down.
With 15 laps to go, Eanrhardt had a lead of 2.5 seconds and was comfortably in control - but given his wretched luck at times in the past when it also looked like nothing could stop him from ending his winless streak, Earnhardt and everyone in the Hendrick camp couldn't have been more anxious or on edge as the seconds ticked past. Surely fate couldn't be so cruel to Junior Nation to deprive him of the win now?
"There you go buddy, white flag," came crew chief Steve Letarte's voice over the team radio, at which point about 82,000 people at Michigan collectively held their breath for the next 40s until there was an explosion of sound and celebration as the cheers welcomed the #88 home across the finish line.
"Hell, yeah," said Earnhardt over the radio. "I don't know what to say." He'd found his voice by the time he made it to the post-race interviews in victory lane, however.
"Man, this is incredible. I just didn't know when it would happen. I knew it was going to happen, just didn't know when," he insisted. "We were getting pretty impatient. I gotta give Steve Letarte and my team - the team he puts around us - all the credit.
"Last year we couldn't really get better, we just stayed the same all year. This year we've been faster and faster - hopefully we can win some more races!" he said, adding his thanks to "All the fans for sticking behind us through all these years trying to get back to victory lane. I'd say this win right here is more for them than anybody because they've supported us through everything. So, we really appreciate that."
About the only man not joining in the celebrations was Tony Stewart, who finished in second.
"It's no different than anybody else that does it, it's not a national holiday guys," he muttered when asked for his reaction to Junior's win after a four year dry spell. Stewart did however pay tribute to Goodyear for making the last minute decision to change tyres.
"It was a hard decision to make," he said. "There were a lot of guys that worked really hard yesterday just getting the tires inside the track. They had to load them in the back of pickup trucks because they didn't get here before qualifying started. They were trucking in tires, literally in the back of pick-ups, to get them in ... Without those guys' effort, we would not have had the show that we had today."
Matt Kenseth ended up working his way into third place over the final stint, and admitted that it had been hard work. "It was kind of a long day. We were pretty good in the beginning of the race and got shuffled back and it was tough to work traffic today. They got the setup good on the last two runs and had good pit stops and we were able to stand on the gas and work our way up there to third."
Biffle held on to fourth place ahead of Johnson, Gordon, Bowyer and Montoya, with pole sitter Marcos Ambrose ending the race in ninth ahead of Kevin Harvick.
“I am a little disappointed because we couldn't run the car as hard as we needed to," said Biffle. "The right rear kept coming apart on us. I could only run it as hard as I could."
"We were coming," said Johnson. "We were really flying. And then I blistered the right rear again and had to just hang on and let some guys go. And then I ran out of fuel going into turn 3 and coasted around and made it to the finish line."
"I knew something happened in that last run," said Gordon, who found heavy blistering on his right rear tyre after the race finished. "We took off and it was really good; and boy, it just went away fast. It got really, really loose."
"Our team has a lot of potential and today we showed a little bit of what we can do," said Montoya after his best finish of 2012 to date. "I think we still have a lot of work to do, but I'm happy, really happy ... I will tell you the truth, yesterday when they changed tyres I was really worried!"
"We will take the top ten, but we had a great car today and we lost a little bit of track position and it hurt us there," contributed Ambrose. "We led some laps and looked good up there. It was a strong day for us, not quite what we wanted, but we will take it and move along to Sonoma."
Carl Edwards ended up just outside the top ten, having started the race dead last after fuel pressure problems during qualifying on Saturday. Even so, he admitted that: "I am not very happy with the end result. I thought our [Ford] was one of the fastest cars here.
"We were just too loose all day. I am talking loose. That is as hard as I can drive and Bob and I just didn't pick the right set up for the race. We didn't expect it to be that loose. It wasn't a terrible day for some of the fighting and wiggling we were doing out there. It was crazy and I am glad we finished in one piece and got a decent day."
But the day's headlines and spotlight really belonged to the man who was - finally - celebrating again in victory lane.
"We've got this victory bell that I get to take around for the first time since we built it. I plan to ring that thing all over the complex," said Dale Earnhardt Jr. "I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can."Full race results