At the same venue that produced his last NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, four years and two days removed from his most recent visit to Victory Lane, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke the most talked-about, most frustrating streak in motor sports.
Pulling away from defending series champion Tony Stewart at the end of the final 60-lap green-flag run, Earnhardt won Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway by a dominating 5.393 seconds to end a drought of 143 races.
“I know you guys have been waiting on that one,” Earnhardt radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line. “I know I have.”
As Earnhardt performed a wild celebratory burnout on the frontstretch, fans and crew members crowded around Victory Lane as the crowd in the grandstands stood and cheered.
The victory was the 19th in the Cup series for Earnhardt, who solidified second place in the Cup standings, closing to four points behind leader Matt Kenseth, who ran third Sunday behind Earnhardt and Stewart.
Earnhardt overcame Goodyear’s 11th-hour switch to a harder left-side tire, after blistering became an issue on the left sides originally supplied for the race. Earnhardt wasn’t happy with the handling of his No. 88 Chevrolet during a extra practice Saturday night, but crew chief Steve Letarte found a combination that worked for the race.
Greg Biffle finished fourth, followed by five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who started from the rear of the field because of an engine change before the race but worked his way back into the top five.
Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10.
Earnhardt took the lead for the first time on Lap 70, when he passed Ambrose for the top spot. From that point on, his was the dominant car; Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps.
“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.
“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.”
The start of the race was delayed for nearly two hours by rain, but by the time NASCAR’s most popular driver took the checkered flag, the track was bathed in sunshine.
About the only blight on the landscape was Tony Stewart’s response to Earnhardt’s long-awaited victory. Apparently tired of questions about Earnhardt’s winless streak, Stewart resorted to sarcasm.
“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.”