Jr. drought over with tank empty
By: By MIKE HARRIS, AP Auto Racing Writer
BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — In his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had to be happy with consistency — until now.
NASCAR’s most popular driver won a Sprint Cup race Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, getting to the finish line in the race that went three laps past regulation on little but fumes in his gas tank and ending a 76-race winless string.
“Finally!” Earnhardt said as he walked into the postrace winner’s interview.
And Junior isn’t about to apologize for winning on fuel strategy.
“I can understand how it might look, especially if you’re not Dale Jr. fans,” he said. “I know exactly what they’re going to say Monday.
“I mean, my fans are happy and I’m happy for them. The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race. But I got the trophy and I got the points. I got to see my team and my owner and my family tonight as happy as they’ve been in a long time. … It’s a pretty big day for me.”
Earnhardt won this one by gambling, somehow going the last 55 laps on the two-mile oval without stopping for gas.
He gave most of the credit for his first win in more than two years to crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
“We came in on that last stop and we were going to be about six laps short, and I saved six laps of gas,” Earnhardt said. “So, (we were) just real lucky. I have to hand it to Tony Jr. for being a risk-taker. … He’s done a good job this year getting us good finishes, better finishes than we should probably have.”
A couple of late cautions helped and Eury determined the No. 88 Chevrolet was only going to be about two laps short of finishing at that point. With about 20 laps to go, Eury radioed Earnhardt to try to save more fuel and gave him the worst-case-scenario.
“We miss it by one lap, we finish 25th,” Eury said. “If we pit and put fuel in it we’re going to finish 25th. So, who cares? Go for it.”
As the laps wound down, drivers were forced to pit for a splash of gas, and Earnhardt, whose last victory came on May 6, 2006, at Richmond, inherited the lead with five to go in regulation. It appeared he had things under control until former IndyCar star Sam Hornish Jr. spun on lap 198, bringing out another caution.
Knowing the race was going to be extended beyond its scheduled 200 laps, Eury told Earnhardt to shut the engine off and coast whenever he could under the caution flag in a desperate effort to save more gas.
Junior did just that, coasting fast enough at times that he passed the pace car — until NASCAR warned Eury to have Earnhardt cut it out.
It worked out perfectly as the green flag came out on lap 202 for a two-lap sprint to the finish, which was then cut short when Patrick Carpentier spun on lap 203, freezing the field and allowing Junior to coast — this time behind the pace car — to his 18th career victory and first at Michigan.
He gave his new boss, Rick Hendrick, only his second victory of the season. Hendrick’s team won 18 of 36 races a year ago, but has struggled to reach Victory Circle in 2008, with a lone victory by two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson until Sunday.
After leaving the team his late father founded to drive for Hendrick’s juggernaut this year, Earnhardt began the new phase of his career with two non-points victories at Daytona in February. But, despite running well so far this season, that promising start did not lead to any victories.
“I’m working hard to get wins, but I just think we’ve had the best car sometimes and things have happened,” said Earnhardt, third in the points behind Kyle Busch and Jeff Burton. “And the rest of the time, we’ve had a top-five car and that’s what we’ve got.
“I’ve really anticipated every weekend, going to the race track with Hendrick Motorsports equipment, and I’ve been positive and eager … to get it on the race track and see just how we measure up to everyone every weekend because I got to the race track with what I feel like is the best stuff, motors and cars and personnel.
“You can put pressure on yourself and say there’s no excuse (for not winning), but I look at it as an opportunity.”
Hendrick, who spent a few quiet moments with Earnhardt in Victory Circle, leaning into the car and talking with his newest driver, was excited for Earnhardt.
“We started out and he won the (Budweiser) Clash and the 150 (qualifying race) and we said, ’We don’t have to worry about winning a race now.’ Then nobody counted it because it wasn’t a points race,” Hendrick said. “We’ve been waiting for this. Been so close.”
Kasey Kahne, coming off a victory the previous week in Pocono, finished second and almost came up with his fourth victory in his past five starts, including the non-points all-star race last month in Charlotte.
Matt Kenseth finished third, followed by Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart and Johnson.