BROOKLYN, Mich. —Dale Earnhardt Jr. is enjoying that old winning feel and he doesn’t much care what his detractors have to say about it.
“I can understand how it might look, especially if you’re not Dale Jr. fans,” Little E said Sunday after ending a 76-race winless by stretching his last fuel load beyond the limit at Michigan International Speedway. “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.”
The most popular driver in NASCAR won this one by gambling, somehow going the last 55 laps on the two-mile oval, including three laps of overtime, without stopping for gas.
He gave most of the credit for his first win in more than two years to crew chief Tony Eury.
“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, driver after driver was 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.
“I didn’t know how much they were going to worry about it,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars out there are gassing it, shutting ‘em off, coasting about a half straightaway, cranking ‘em back up, gas it, coast. Everybody’s doing it.
“There’s no rules specifically against that, but I was getting a little greedy … I wanted to coast farther, so I’d gas it harder and coast past the pace car and just let him come on and catch back up, and that way I could keep my motor off longer.”
It worked out just right 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.
“They can write what they want, but we won one,” Earnhardt said in the jubilation after the Lifelock 400.
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 in the first 14 Cup races.
“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 in Victory Circle. “We’ve been waiting for this. Been so close.”
Earnhardt was as relieved as he was joyful about the long-awaited victory.
“This is pretty meaningful because it’s with Rick,” he said. “He’s such a great man because he’s been through so much. I’m glad to be able to win for him, for Tony Jr., for the team for believing in me.”
Kasey Kahne, coming off a victory the previous week in Pocono, finished second and almost came up with his fourth victory in his last five starts, including the non-points all-star race last month in Charlotte.
“It was pretty close there,” Kahne said. “We topped off there and I think we pretty much had the most fuel of anybody out there. We did the best thing we could do today to get a good finish. the team did a good job.”
Matt Kenseth finished third, followed by Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart and two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth, who led several times, said he might have won the race if not for mishap in the pits on his last stop. A NASCAR officials, apparently thinking Kenseth was going to take four tires instead of two, walked in front of his car just as the former series champion started out of his pit. Kenseth didn’t hit the officials, but the hesitation cost him valuable seconds.
“I was hoping for some kind of break (from NASCAR),” Kenseth said. “The official walked in front of the car as I was ready to go. It was either I run him down or wait for him to move. The car just came up short because of circumstances and strategy.”
Series points leader Kyle Busch finished a less than memorable three-race weekend with a 13th-place finish on Sunday. The youngster, with a total of 10 races this season in NASCAR’s three top series, finished seventh in the truck race here Saturday, drawing criticism when he spun out Ron Hornaday Jr. near the end. Busch then flew to Kentucky, where he crashed and finished 30th in a Nationwide race.
But Cup runner-up Jeff Burton finished 15th Sunday and still trails Busch by 32 points, with Earnhardt 84 behind in third. Defending race winner Carl Edwards finished seventh and goes to next week’s race on the road course in Sonoma, Calif., fourth in the standings, 206 points behind.