Sunday, June 17, 2012

Earnhardt Jr Rises at Michigan! Ends 143-Race Winless Streak

Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR

The lead storyline through the first two days of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race weekend at Michigan International Speedway circulated around the tires Goodyear brought to the newly repaved 2-mile oval. With an emergency Saturday evening practice session subtracting magnitude of the issue, Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway would receive headlines for another more positive reason. After 200 laps, a driver piloting a superhero-themed car battled his foes for a much-needed triumph.

The Sunday main event was initially threatened by rain showers that drenched the Michigan oval. Pushing the start of the Quicken Loans 400 past 3pm eastern time, the 43-car Father’s Day race still received enough daylight in the mid-June sky to create a rich, Sprint Cup spectacle.

Pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose #9 Ford was part of a trio of blue oval-badged race cars that would lead all but one of the race’s first 69 laps. Ambrose, the #16 Ford of Greg Biffle and the #17 car driven by Biffle’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth led early at the Michigan racetrack. Over the span of the Ford Fusions leading, four cautions would slow the progress of the Quicken Loans 400. With two being competitions caution called so the tire situation of days prior would be assessed, the issue was ultimately defused in the 400-mile race limited to only some blistering Goodyear rubber coming off some cars. The race’s first caution involved a lap 3 spin by the #51 Chevrolet driven by the heavily scrutinized Kurt Busch. The Phoenix Racing #51 car would also spin on lap 121 of the Quicken Loans 400 ending with the elder Busch driver placed 30th in the finishing order.

Photo Credit: Drew Hallowell/Getty Images for NASCAR

Progressing from a 17th place qualifying position, the black and green #88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr had been moving in the right direction during the first one-third distance of the Michigan International Speedway race. On lap 70, the Hendrick Motorsports car themed to support the upcoming Batman movie “Dark Knight Rises” flew to the front of the Quicken Loans 400. The site of Earnhardt Jr’s last points-scoring win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series back in 2008, crowds were anxious to see if the #88 Chevrolet will have the staying power to keep the top spot to the end.

Unwilling to simply allow NASCAR Sprint Cup’s most popular driver to claim a win, the efforts of Dale Earnhardt Jr was challenged by auto racing comrade Tony Stewart. In a similar Hendrick Motorsports prepped Chevrolet Impala to that of Earnhardt Jr’s team vehicle, Stewart powered his #14 car around the #88 on lap 87. Jeff Gordon’s #24 Chevrolet and the #42 of Juan-Pablo Montoya would also spend a handful of laps at the front of the 400-mile event. After Ford’s dominating the early stage of the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Chevrolet had an impressive control of the later stages of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

As Chevrolet and Ford teams enjoyed being at the peak of competition at Michigan, one of Toyota’s most prolific organizations had an outing at Michigan they would prefer to forget. Joe Gibbs Racing saw all three cars fall deep in the running order. First, the #18 car of Kyle Busch spent an extended time in the garage due to a valvetrain issue on the car’s race engine. Busch returned the race 40 laps down to the leader and would finish the day 32nd across the start/finish line.

In back-to-back incidents, the remaining Joe Gibbs Racing vehicles driven by Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin were taken out of competition. Logano’s #20 Toyota was part of a lap 127 wreck that collected the #38 of David Gilliland and the #5 Hendrick Motorsports car of Kasey Kahne. Both winners in the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season, Joey Logano and Kahne would retire from the Quicken Loans 400. The #11 Toyota of Denny Hamlin would leave the Michigan race on lap 134 when an apparently harmless spin turned into an inferno from the Joe Gibbs Racing car’s engine compartment. Denny Hamlin was classified 34th in the race while the #20 of Joey Logano ended the day in 35th spot.

Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR

When the final caution period of the Quicken Loans 400 concluded on lap 140, the #88 Chevrolet of Dale Earnhardt Jr led Tony Stewart across the flag for the crucial green flag. Without another yellow flag slowing the Michigan race in the last 60 laps, teams would require one remaining pit stop for fuel under green flag racing conditions. A pivotal moment, the Hendrick Motorsports crew rose to the occasion to give Earnhardt Jr a flawless, final pit service stop for two tires and fuel on lap 164. Retaking the lead on lap 171, the #88 Chevrolet would lead the final 30 circuits around the Michigan International Speedway to cross the line first.

Victorious at the Quicken Loans 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr entered the winner’s circle in what was celebrated as a popular 2012 race win. Convincing winning the Michigan International Speedway race by 5.3 seconds over Tony Stewart, the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led for 95 laps on the day. In what had previously been a rare state, Dale Earnhardt Jr was the class of the field. “
I saved a little in my pocket in the last 50 laps and ran only as hard as I thought I needed to, and at the end of the race, this thing was a rocket and I couldn’t slow it down, it was so fast.” said Earnhardt Jr.

143 races and 4 years since his last Sprint Cup Series win in a regular event, this second win with Hendrick Motorsports is the result of some long struggles. Responding to the racing fortunes of past races, Earnhardt Jr commented, “I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, this was the worst -- that’s the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what’s going to happen or how you were going to lose.” While just winning his first race of 2012, Dale Earnhardt Jr has actually been enjoying a strong season overall with the victory at Michigan now catapulting him to second in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver points standing.

Finishing second, Tony Stewart placed ahead of the Roush Fenway Racing Ford Fusions of NASCAR Sprint Cup point’s leader Matt Kenseth and the #16 car of Greg Biffle. With Dale Earnhardt Jr becoming the third driver to add a win to Hendrick Motorsports’ 2012 tally, two teammates also had strong outings at Michigan concluding with top-10 runs. Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Chevrolet finished 5th just ahead of Jeff Gordon’s #24 car. Clint Bowyer for Michael Waltrip Racing was the highest finishing Toyota Camry in the Quicken Loans 400 with the #15 5-Hour Energy car.

With many of the approximate 82,000 spectators in audience electric in the celebration of the Dale Earnhardt Jr victory, the next trip for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup tour is to the California road course in Sonoma for the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup
Quicken Loans 400
Michigan International Speedway
Race Result

Pos # Car # Driver Sponsor/ Car Make
1 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. DietMtnDew/TheDarkKnightRises/NtnlGuard Chev
2 14 Tony Stewart Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet
3 17 Matt Kenseth Ford EcoBoost Ford
4 16 Greg Biffle 3M/Salute Ford
5 48 Jimmie Johnson Lowe's Chevrolet
6 24 Jeff Gordon DuPont Chevrolet
7 15 Clint Bowyer 5-hour Energy Toyota
8 42 Juan Pablo Montoya Target Chevrolet
9 9 Marcos Ambrose Stanley Ford
10 29 Kevin Harvick Budweiser Folds of Honor Chevrolet
11 99 Carl Edwards Fastenal Ford
12 56 Martin Truex Jr. NAPA Auto Parts Toyota
13 2 Brad Keselowski Miller Lite Dodge
14 1 Jamie McMurray McDonald's Chevrolet
15 39 Ryan Newman US ARMY Chevrolet
16 47 Bobby Labonte Charter Toyota
17 43 Aric Almirola Medallion Ford
18 83 Landon Cassill Burger King Toyota
19 22 AJ Allmendinger Shell Pennzoil Dodge
20 13 Casey Mears Valvoline NEXTGEN Ford
21 31 Jeff Burton Caterpillar Chevrolet
22 27 Paul Menard Menards/Duracell Chevrolet
23 34 David Ragan Front Row Motorsports Ford
24 33 Austin Dillon American Ethanol Chevrolet
25 36 Dave Blaney Seal Wrap Chevrolet
26 93 Travis Kvapil Burger King Toyota
27 38 David Gilliland Long John Silver's Ford
28 78 Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet
29 55 Mark Martin Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota
30 51 Kurt Busch Phoenix Construction Services, Inc. Chevrolet
31 32 Ken Schrader Federated Auto Parts Ford
32 18 Kyle Busch Snickers Toyota
33 5 Kasey Kahne Farmers Insurance Chevrolet
34 11 Denny Hamlin FedEx Office Toyota
35 20 Joey Logano The Home Depot Toyota
36 10 Tony Raines Tommy Baldwin Racing Chevrolet
37 49 JJ Yeley America Israel Racing/JPO Absorbents Toyota
38 98 Michael McDowell Presbyterian Healthcare Ford
39 19 Mike Bliss Humphrey Smith Racing, LLC Toyota
40 87 Joe Nemechek AM/FM Energy Wood & Pellet Stoves Toyota
41 23 Scott Riggs North TX Pipe Chevrolet
42 26 Josh Wise MDS Transport Ford
43 21 Trevor Bayne Motorcraft/Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford

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