Earnhardt returns to Victory Lane at Michigan
BROOKLYN, Mich. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. found Victory Lane for the first time in four years after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. This is his 19th career Cup win, and second for team owner Rick Hendrick.
A two hour rain delay stalled the long awaited Earnhardt victory, but once the green flag dropped the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/The Dark Knight Rises/National Guard Chevrolet rose through the field to recreate his first win as a Hendrick Motorsports driver and bring the stands to their feet. His first win behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet came on June 15, 2008 when he led 14 laps at the Michigan track.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Earnhardt said. “The last 15 laps were the longest laps ever. It’s great to do it for my fans. They stuck behind me for all these years. I know exactly what they’ve been thinking about and how long they’ve wanted to get back to Victory Lane. This is for them. Thanks to them and their support.”
Earnhardt was joined in the top 10 by his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who finished fifth and sixth, respectively. Kasey Kahne encountered a late-race issue and was scored with a 33rd-place finish.
Kahne opened the 200-lap race from the second row, leading his teammates and starting fourth. While Johnson qualified 10th, the No. 48 team chose to replace the engine of the Lowe’s Chevrolet and started the race from the rear of the field. Earnhardt and Gordon lined up 17th and 28th, respectively.
The Hendrick Motorsports teammates battled a slick track during the first Cup race at the newly repaved Michigan oval. As the day progressed, the drivers reported loose handling and took advantage of early-race cautions to make adjustments.
On Lap 25, NASCAR called for a competition caution where Earnhardt, Gordon and Johnson made gains coming off pit road. Kahne continued to address a loose No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet, dropping outside of the top 15.
Earnhardt’s Batman-themed No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew/The Dark Knight Rises/National Guard Chevrolet began to rise through the pack after the Lap 25 caution. He gained 15 positions to run 11th before the second competition caution on Lap 50. The crowd jumped to its feet as the winner of the June 2008 event at Michigan charged to the lead just 20 laps later.
Gordon cracked the top five for the first time during the 400-mile event shortly after his teammate took the lead. The No. 24 team executed a quick two-tire pit stop to climb into fourth position during a caution for debris on Lap 81. While Earnhardt and Gordon restarted in the top five, Johnson was 16th and Kahne sat in 21st.
After the sixth caution of the race, Gordon lined up to lead on the restart, followed by Earnhardt in the Batman-themed Chevrolet. Before the drivers could complete a circuit around the two-mile track, Kahne was collected in a multi-car incident when a competitor got loose on the backstretch. The No. 5 Farmers Insurance Chevrolet was taken to the garage where the team put a new front end on the racecar. Kahne returned to the track with roughly 40 laps to go and was ultimately scored 33rd.
With 50 laps to go, the remaining Hendrick Motorsports teammates ran together in the top 10. Led by Earnhardt and the No. 88 Chevrolet, Gordon ran in third while Johnson climbed to seventh. The driver of the Batman-themed Chevrolet never looked back.
Johnson continued to work his way up in the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet to earn his eighth top-five finish of the season, while Gordon maintained his footing in the top 10 to finish sixth.
Team owner Rick Hendrick was not physically in attendance at Michigan, but anxiously watched the laps wind down from his home in North Carolina.
“I was doing laps around my couch, trying to end this race,” Hendrick said. “Man, Batman was in a hurry. I was too nervous to stand still. Linda and I were just watching it, come on, no problems. I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen.”
Hendrick’s fears were unnecessary. The race ended without further incident and Earnhardt safely made his way to Victory Lane, continuing his strong season.
“Dale is just—he’s just switched on,” Hendrick said about the race winner. “He’s got the confidence, Stevie has got the touch and every week they’re the best by far. I think he’s sitting in the cat bird seat to win his first championship.”
After the event in Michigan, Earnhardt holds steady at second in the driver standings. Johnson improved one position to take fourth, Kahne held at 16th and Gordon moved to 20th.