18 June 2012
Earnhardt breaks 143-race victory drought
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.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
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