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Dale Earnhardt Jr.: winning again, and now aiming at a championship?

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: winning again, and now aiming at a championship?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., in Michigan's victory lane, with girlfriend Amy Reimann (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   BROOKLYN, Mich.
   Seldom in American sports has one star's losing streak held so much attention.
   So let's let Dale Earnhardt Jr., and crew chief Steve Letarte, enjoy the moment of victory.
   Four years and two days....0-for143.
   Now it's finally history.
   And it was certainly a bit of history, in more ways than one.
   Not just a win, but a solid win over some of the toughest in the business: Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle.
   And on one of the most treacherous tracks on the tour, lightning-fast repaved Michigan International Speedway, on a record-smashing speed weekend of unheard of speeds, up to 220 mph.
    Blown engines, fiery crashes....
    And of course a red-hot tire controversy, first really on the stock car tour in four years...and this one one for the books, to be sure. Even Goodyear's toughest-ever tire blistered at these speeds.


   Goodyear men working overtime to changeover to the new Michigan left-side tires (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    And the way it played out,  drivers and crews had barely one hour of real practice to come up with a new game plan on the eve of the fastest race in NASCAR history on a two-mile oval like this.    
    That's the stage where Dale Earnhardt Jr. triumphed.

    Earnhardt has been full of surprises this season, his best year on the tour since maybe 2004.
   Moments after winning the Michigan 400, the 19th tour win of his 11-year career, stock car racing's perennial most popular driver was kissing his long-time girlfriend Amy Reimann in victory lane.
   For the intensely shy and private Earnhardt, it was a rare moment.


   Dale Jr. and Amy, at last fall's championship shindig in Las Vegas (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

      Last year's pairing with Letarte, after his two years with Jeff Gordon, was intriguing. Letarte, for all his leadership, technical talents and organizational skills, seems best known for his remarkable upbeat cheerleader role.
    Letarte, this big stocky guy who has been working for team owner Rick Hendrick since he was a teenager, exudes confidence and positive vibes. For someone as hard on himself, and sometimes so introverted, as Earnhardt, it has been a very good pairing.
    And positive vibes were sorely needed here Sunday afternoon, amid all the chaos and confusion.    
    The entire weekend was filled with tension, and some of the fastest speeds in NASCAR history, sustained
    At first drivers called the high-speed thrill runs exhilarating. Grip was very good, even at the high speeds.
    Sunday that all changed, with new rock-hard left-sides tires which made the cars suddenly very difficult to handle, and only cut speeds by about five or six mph, from a 200-mph race pace down to 194.
    Surprisingly the unexpected added intrigues didn't diminish the feisty spirit of the men at the wheel, who went two-wide and three-wide, and once even four-wide, albeit unsuccessfully for Denny Hamlin.


   The Dark Knight? Put an Earnhardt in a black car and good things happen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Indeed it was a rare afternoon all the way around.
   And these guys will be coming back in mid-August to do it all again, on pretty much the same tires, just tweaked a bit.
   And to have it capped off with Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally winning again, well that just made it all the better.
   But just winning wasn't enough for everyone...NASCAR president Mike Helton hugged Earnhardt in victory and proclaimed him one of the men to beat for this year's Sprint Cup championship. Uh, perhaps a bit of marketing overkill, since Stewart won last year's title with five tour wins in the last  10 races....and Earnhardt's last five wins – well, let's see: here Sunday, here in 2008, Richmond in 2006,     
      Earnhardt's win wasn't a bolt from the blue. He's been strong most of the season, and consistent, which hasn't been his forte over his career.
   Earnhardt didn't back into this win, and he made a point of that, contrasting it to the gas-mileage win four years ago.
   "We whupped 'em pretty good," he said with a grin.
   Not really, Earnhardt said.
    "I thought it would be all relief.. but it was no relief at all -- it was excitement," Earnhardt said. And yes he was quite giddy about it.


   Junior Nation whooping it up (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Now how long this glow may linger...well, Sonoma's road course, a thousand miles west of this Detroit-area track, hasn't been a great one for Earnhardt over the years. Of course it took his legendary father years to finally win.
    But then there are no road courses in the 10-race playoffs.

   Perhaps more important than just the win is how Earnhardt has been running all spring. He's had shots to win, most recently at Pocono, where Letarte is still kicking himself for not having the right strategy to close the deal.


   Steve Letarte has inspired confidence in Dale Earnhardt Jr. since taking over as crew chief. And now they're getting good results (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "We are getting stronger," Earnhardt says proudly.  
   Last year he says wasn't that bad, but things never seemed to get much better.
   "Even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve, and run well and be competitive, I was a little disheartened I didn't progress. I didn't find more speed as the year went on.  We just stayed the same.
    "This year we have gotten faster throughout the year.  We started off pretty quick, and we have gotten quicker,  especially these last couple weeks."
   Indeed teammate Jimmie Johnson exploded into high-gear in mid-May, and rivals could tell the Hendrick camp had found something new.
    Now Earnhardt is making good use of it too.
   Kenseth, a perennial title challenger and the 2003 champion, says he considers Earnhardt and Letarte legitimate title contenders.
   Earnhardt, though, doesn't want to get too far ahead of things.     
   "I don't know really where we stand in the competition level... as far as being a threat to win the title. That's a great compliment from Matt.  
    "But we just want to keep our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race... and see what happens."


   Steve Letarte's pit crew 'dewed' it Sunday at Michigan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The entire four days here was jammed with sensory overload, for drivers and crews.
   The speeds were amazing, to begin with. Drivers were breathless, crew chiefs were worried. Engines might fail at these sustained high rpm; suspension parts might break.
   Yet NASCAR officials, that first day of practice/testing, said everything was "Green light."
   Of course everything wasn't okay.
   Late Friday night Goodyear, after too many reports of blistered left-side tires in just 30 to 40 miles of running, decided to bring in a harder left-side.
   NASCAR, which has been criticized by some this season for its jam-packed weekend schedule of events, was suddenly in a jam too – and all it could offer teams, on the eve of what would be the fastest race in NASCAR history, was a 75-minute final practice session Saturday night.
   NASCAR officials said teams could run the data through computers to find setups.  Of course those computers failed in foreseeing the initial problems....
    You think drivers and crews were nervous here Sunday morning?
   The tension was almost fatalistic. Someone would win, sure, but most were just hoping for no serious incidents.
    One obvious issue – which has been debated at other tracks too, such as California's Auto Club Speedway – is why such high speeds in the first place?
   Promoter Bruton Smith, for one, has pointed out that slower speeds generally make for better racing.
   Here in the Friday afternoon heat Greg Biffle hit 220 mph on the straights, part of his smashing lap at nearly 205 mph.
   Goodyear's new left-sides did slow corner speeds Sunday, but the leaders were still running sustained race-pace laps at well over 194 mph – at the one-time track qualifying record.
   At least that was slower than the 200-mph race pace Biffle had projected on the original tires.
   So the tire change did slow speeds about six mph.
   Still Stewart posted one of the quickest top speeds Sunday of 215 mph.
   Earnhardt conceded he didn't have much confidence heading into the race:
   "We had some tough things to overcome, with the tire issues. They made some changes, and I wasn't very confident after the practice Saturday night."
    In fact Earnhardt and Letarte were handicapped – like other teams – by NASCAR's insistence on no engine changes without major penalty (having to start at the rear of the field).
   Letarte thus limited Earnhardt to just 25 laps of practice Saturday evening.
   Why NASCAR officials didn't simply rescind the engine rule under the circumstances is something the sanctioning body has not discussed.
   (Considering the extreme speeds involved here, there are several questions about NASCAR's pre-race game plan.)

   So it was up to Letarte to pump up his nervous driver. And that's been one of Letarte's strengths during his time as crew chief (first with Jeff Gordon, now with Earnhardt).
   "Steve felt pretty good....talked about things we would do to the car. And he felt pretty confident.
    "I was a little nervous when the race started; the car was not quite where I needed it to be. 
    "We were not in too big trouble, but we needed some adjustments.
    "It's really tough to give Steve (the right information about the car under those circumstances). I worry whether he knows exactly where I'm at or what I need with the car, how much I need. 
    "But I guess he knows me well enough, because he made the right calls, and the thing took off flying.
    "Then he made some pit strategy choices that put us toward the front, to where the car could respond. If we had a fast car, it was going to happen... and it did."
    Clean air of course is critical at these high speeds.
    "The car responded when we got there, and I learned a lot -- running around behind people, learning about what my car was capable of doing.
    "And I pushed my car a little bit harder each time we ran around the corner
     "I saved a little in my pocket in the last 50 laps, and ran only as hard as I thought I needed to. But at the end of the race this thing was a rocket; I couldn't slow it down, it was so fast."

    Letarte says last week's Pocono race, also on lightning fast new asphalt, gave him some insights into how to approach the Michigan race.
    "We had some concepts and some ideas in the race car we took there, and it showed speed, so we were excited to get here," Letarte said.
    "We were pretty comfortable with our car Thursday and Friday.  We were disappointed to see the tire trouble because we thought we had good speed.
    "But we understood the situation and what needed to be done.  When Goodyear brought the different tire in for that short happy hour session, we did the best we could, throwing some things at the car to get feedback."
    Earnhardt had a potentially winning car at Pocono, but a curious late pit stop, to ensure enough gas to finish, doomed him.
   Letarte called Pocono particularly "disappointing"  because of the long winless streak. "If we had won three weeks ago, nobody would have cared that we pitted,"  Letarte said. "You had a great car... you pitted bad... you ran eighth... you'll get 'em next week.
     "You see race teams -- and I've been a part of them -- you don't race out of desperation but you start swinging for the fences. When you're down seven or eight runs in the ninth inning, bunts are not going to work.  You have to start putting guys on base.  
    "This proves to us that our strategy is correct: If you bring fast enough race cars, you don't have to get out of your comfort zone too far, and you don't have to get super crazy with your pit strategy.  
 "You make your own luck. You get bad breaks along the way, but if you have a strong enough team and strong enough cars, then even the bad luck can't hold you down forever.
    "We have earned this win: at Las Vegas we had a spectacular car, at Dover we had a good car, at Pocono I feel we had a winning car."
    Now it's party time, for one more day maybe. Drinks around at Whiskey River?
    Earnhardt relishes the celebration: "I'll probably lead by example...
    "I'll probably just see what everybody else does and jump in the pool if the water is warm. 
     "But I don't want to get carried away.  We have a great thing going....we want to be sharp and I want to be sharp when we go to the next race. 
    "We have a tough one at Sonoma -- and we have a chip on our shoulders because of struggles I've had at that place.
     "I don't want to get too far ahead of myself.  We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-ten at that place.  
     "We have a lot to accomplish this year."


   Solid (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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