June 15, 2008 7:54 pm EDT

Junior to the rescue
By Jerry Bonkowski, Yahoo Sports

Junior won, but Tony Eury Jr. made the winning call. (Getty)
BROOKLYN, Mich. – In a week filled with troubling controversy, there's no question NASCAR desperately needed some good news.

Since last Tuesday, headlines have screamed about the $225 million sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuit filed against NASCAR by a former technical inspector.

Facing perhaps the biggest challenge of his nearly five-year tenure, NASCAR chairman Brian France needed some good news. And doggone it if he didn't get it.

JUNIOR WINS! JUNIOR WINS!

After 76 races without a Sprint Cup victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. no longer has to worry about when he'll finally win a race again.

"Finally," a relieved Earnhardt said after winning Sunday's LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

That's an understatement, for sure.

And somewhere, France had to be saying, "Thank you."

During a winless stretch that dated back to May 2006 – one that included several questionable calls by Junior's crew chief Tony Eury Jr. – it was Eury's savvy call to gamble on fuel and go for the win rather than come in for fuel and assure a solid points day that made the difference.

"I have to hand it to Tony Jr. being a risk taker," Earnhardt said. "Audacity wouldn't be a good word, but it's real close to that. He's done a good job getting us good finishes and better finishes than we should probably have had."

To Eury, it was a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation.

"Worse case scenario, if we miss it by one lap, we finish 25th, and if we pit and put fuel in, we're going to finish 25th," Eury said. "So, who cares, go for it. Are you going to wind up 25th or are you going to win? The things just rolled right."

While Earnhardt admitted he had his doubts about Eury's call, he didn't overrule him.

"Normally I wouldn't take the risk to trade the top-five for a possible win because half the time it doesn't work out, but we did the right thing today," Earnhardt said.

But this was more than just breaking a winless string.

Facing its most trying time since the death of Dale Earnhardt Sr., NASCAR has been in serious defense mode since Tuesday when Mauricia Grant's wildly descriptive allegations of racial and sexual harassment came to public light.

How serious is the situation NASCAR is facing?

Saturday, France, who rarely holds press conferences, was at MIS to defend NASCAR, saying Grant was only after money.

NASCAR needed something or someone to change the topic of conversation, and one day later Earnhardt Jr. has done just that.

"If it helps NASCAR and makes NASCAR happy and it does something for NASCAR, then great, I'm glad that I could be part of that," Earnhardt said. "I'd rather that be the case than if I had won the race and nobody would be happy about it."

So rather than talk continuing about the lawsuit, and instead of stories about the 30,000 or so empty seats at MIS, the stories will all be about Junior ending his winless streak.

Sure, non-Junior fans will say it was a cheap way to get to victory lane, winning under caution and all, or that it was a fuel-mileage race in which Junior didn't have the best car, but rather the least thirsty.

Or they might protest – as third-place finisher Matt Kenseth did – that NASCAR cut Junior a major break, that he should have been penalized during the second-to-last caution for passing the pace car in an effort to save fuel by shutting off his car and then restarting it. In so doing, his momentum caused him to pass the pace car several times until "NASCAR said if I did it again, they were going to park me," Earnhardt said.

But to Junior fans everywhere, those arguments won't hold water. They know, see, hear and believe just one thing: Junior is back and all is well in the NASCAR world.

"I can understand how it might look, especially if you're not a Dale Jr. fan," Earnhardt said. "I know exactly what they're going to say Monday, but the hell with it. My fans are happy and I'm happy for them.

"(Non-Earnhardt fans) are going to tear this apart on how we won this race. But I've got the trophy and I've got the points, and I got to see my team, my owner and my family happier than they've been in a long time. To win here is pretty special to me."

In two ironic twists, Earnhardt Jr.'s winless streak ends at 76, the same number of races his late father won in his Cup career. And the winless streak was snapped on Father's Day.

"It makes me feel good, even though I know I can't tell my father Happy Father's Day," Earnhardt said. "But I get the opportunity to wish it upon all the other fathers out there, and I genuinely mean that when I say it because that's what today is all about."

Coincidence? Perhaps.

But to hang on to win in a car that Eury originally calculated would run out of gas six laps from the scheduled finish – and then to not only go those half-dozen circuits, but three overtime laps, too – certainly makes one wonder if a higher power may have had a hand in Junior's win.

"We came in and thought we were going to be six laps short, and I saved six laps of gas," Earnhardt said. "We were just real lucky."

Junior once joked that his mother always wanted him to be a doctor.

Even though he never became an M.D., Earnhardt gave NASCAR just what the doctor ordered.


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Updated on Sunday, Jun 15, 2008 7:54 pm, EDT

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