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Junior! Put an Earnhardt in a black car and magic happens

Junior! Put an Earnhardt in a black car and magic happens

Dale Earnhardt Jr., a winner again (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   By Mike Mulhern

    BROOKLYN, Mich.
    Junior Nation may party all week, and maybe even longer, now that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has finally snapped that long, long, long winless streak.
   And Junior himself figures he'll be "jumping in the water too," in celebrating Sunday's Michigan 400 victory...a solid butt-kicking victory on a warm sunny afternoon at newly repaved Michigan International Speedway.
   Earnhardt's last Sprint Cup tour win came right here exactly four years ago, during his first months with team owner Rick Hendrick. But that was a gas mileage win, on a day he didn't dominate. Earnhardt Sunday however left no doubts in anyone's mind that he was the man to beat with the car to beat.
   And Earnhardt sprinted away from Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle to win the three-hour event, in front of a crowd NASCAR estimated at 82,000.
   The day began with nagging rain, which delayed the start of the race until 3 p.m.  ET.
   The first part of the race was a Ford show, with Marcos Ambrose, Biffle and Kenseth in firm control.
   But once Earnhardt charged to the lead 140 miles into the 400-miler, it was clear he had the iron. Only Stewart appeared to have enough car to wrestle with Earnhardt...and Stewart may have been stymied by some of the significant  tire problems that plagued the race. Earnhardt pulled away to win by more than five seconds.


  An impressive win for Dale Earnhardt Jr......and an impressive burnout (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Several incidents during the first two hours brought out cautions:
   -- a Kurt Busch spin;
   -- Josh Wise' blown engine;
   -- Kyle Busch's blown engine (his third straight);
   -- another Kurt Busch spin;
   -- a crash on a restart that took out Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and David Gilliland;
   -- and, most dramatically, a fiery crash that shook up Denny Hamlin, who got the worst of it in an amazing four-wide duel into the corner.
   But the final 120 miles went green, and Earnhardt only relinquished the lead during pit stops.
    For the day Earnhardt led 95 of the 200 laps.


   The Batmobile: Junior, on his way to victory at Michigan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   And it was a giddy driver who crawled out of Steve Letarte's Chevy in  victory lane.
   Hendrick himself missed this bit of history; he was at home. So in post-race interviews Earnhardt carried around a Hendrick bobble-head doll.

   Earnhardt, despite a powerful car, sweated out the final miles:
   "That's the worst feeling -- riding around with 15 laps to go, wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose.
   "Those laps could not go by fast enough.  'I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it easy...No, I want to run it hard, get it over with.'
    "I was just going crazy, thinking... and I'm looking all around the track hoping there's no debris around the next corner. 
     "I was just waiting on something to happen. 
     "That was terrifying, to be honest with you.
     "I kept thinking about Steve and the team and how hard we have worked and how we deserved to win, and how we should win...
    "That race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, and today we just whooped them really good."


   Jimmie Johnson (R) was quick to victory lane to congratulate Junior (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

 On the other hand, Stewart was a bit more circumspect.
    "It's not a national holiday, guys.  This morning they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win... so I guess we are all in a state of mourning now because he's broke that streak now.
    "I don't know what we are all supposed to think."
     The tires, Stewart said, were more on his mind: "The tires were pretty hard.  It was hard to run two-wide through the corner. 
    "You didn't see too many guys stay side-by-side into the corner. 
    "Dale had the fastest car all day.  He could run pretty much the same pace the whole run.  We could do it for about the first half of the run,. and then we would lose pace."


  Dale Earnhardt Jr. did a good job on pit road too (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
      Kenseth, who like Stewart broke into the Cup series the same time as Earnhardt, was a bit more warmhearted:
    "It's probably a burden -- having all your fans talking about you and writing stuff about you, and not winning.
    "But this year you could see it was going to be a matter of time.  Really they have been the guys all year.
    "That car has had a ton of speed, and always got finishes. Except for circumstances they have been up there battling in the top-five each week. 
    "You could see they kept knocking on the door, and today they were able to kick it down and dominated the race pretty good.  They were really fast all weekend and we're really happy for them to get that win."
    In victory lane NASCAR president Mike Helton even proclaimed Earnhardt a favorite for the championship.
   Kenseth says "they are definitely a contender. They have been right up there in the mix every race, no matter what size or shape of track.
    "So I definitely think they are at this point in the season one of the favorites."



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