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Earnhardt ends winless streak with victory in Michigan

The SportsXchange

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The Dark Knight finally found the light at the end of a very long dark road on Sunday.

Sporting colors promoting the upcoming Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises," Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally snapped a 143-race winless streak at the same place he earned his last previous Sprint Cup victory four years ago, Michigan International Speedway, capturing the Quicken Loans 400.

"That race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, but today, we just whooped 'em," Earnhardt said with a smile on his face. "I'm going to enjoy this."

Earnhardt led the most laps and drove a near-perfect race, with his No. 88 Chevrolet seemingly getting stronger as the remaining laps clicked off. At his strongest, Earnhardt led his closest challenger by more than five seconds.

"My fans have stuck behind me for all these years, and I know exactly what they've been thinking about and how long they've been wanting us to get back to victory lane, so this one is for them," Earnhardt said. "I appreciate all their loyalty and support, and we couldn't have gotten to victory lane without it."

Earnhardt later elaborated on how his win was as important to him as it was to his fan base.

"I felt good for them because my fans have went through a lot to stay dedicated and loyal," he said. "They wondered why we weren't competitive ... and they wondered what was missing, but they never doubted me and they never gave up.

"So I know there's a lot of people that are happy today. I felt the excitement and emotion from the fan base almost immediately, as soon as I got out of the car, how many people were in their living rooms, screaming at the top of their lungs or running out into the yards."

Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte were both fraught with emotion, with Letarte on the verge of tears, while Earnhardt seemingly numb at what he had finally accomplished after so many races of coming up short. It was almost as if the 37-year-old Earnhardt was pinching himself to see whether the win was indeed real.

Earnhardt's route to breaking the winless streak was filled with a number of bumps and obstacles in the road, including finishing runner-up in seven races over the four-year winless skein. But he never gave up, kept pushing and never lost faith in his ability.

"Dale Jr., he drove a great race, and this crew, it's been a long time since they've won," said Letarte. "They really deserve it. Lot of close calls and seconds, and we finally get this win. That was 200 beautiful laps. I can't say enough. He's done everything I've asked him to do. He's driven the wheels off every lap. I'm sure there were days that I wondered if this would happen, but these guys kept my head up."

Earnhardt has been the most consistent driver this season, and has remained in the top 10 from the opening race at Daytona. The win Sunday all but assured him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which he has missed two of the last three seasons.

"It's not always been peaches and cream, but really the devotion and desire was never questioned by me at all," Letarte said.

Third-place finisher Matt Kenseth, who is one of Earnhardt's best friends, said Sunday's win elevates Junior's status even further.

"This year, you could see it was going to be a matter of time," Kenseth said. "Really, they've been the guys all year, they've had just a ton of speed and they haven't always got the finishes for circumstances, but they've been battling up there in the top five each and every week, they've finished every lap.

"You could just see they kept knocking on the door and were able to kick it down, dominate the race and were really fast all weekend. I'm really happy for them to get that win. As for the championship thing, they're definitely a contender. They've been right up there in the mix each and every race. They're definitely at this point of the season one of the favorites."

In his post-race press conference, when informed of Kenseth's comments, Earnhardt joked and quipped, "I guess that means I'm an all right dude."

Almost as important for Earnhardt is the win allowed him to close the gap on points-leader Kenseth to just a four-point deficit.

"I was just waiting on something to happen," Earnhardt said, admitting he was worried that he might lose his lead at the end and come up short yet again. "That was terrifying, to be honest with you. I was thinking of Steve and how hard we've worked and how we deserved to win."

The son of the late Dale Earnhardt savored this win in uncanny fashion, causing the post-race celebration in victory lane to be delayed a few minutes while he talked on the phone with team owner Rick Hendrick before Junior finally climbed out of his car to a screaming crowd that gave him a standing ovation.

Tony Stewart finished second, followed by Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon finished sixth, followed by Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, pole sitter Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick.

Stewart had mixed feelings about Earnhardt's win. While also a close friend of Junior's, Stewart was upset that he wound up runner-up and not the winner.

"Dale had the fastest car all day," Stewart said. "He could run the same pace pretty much the whole run, while we could do it for the first half of the run and then lose pace.

"(Earnhardt's win is) no different than anybody else's. It's not a national holiday, guys. This morning, they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all going to stay in mourning because he broke that string now."

While Earnhardt's millions of fans may argue with Stewart about Sunday not becoming a national holiday because Earnhardt finally snapped a streak that began nearly four years to the day, on June 15, 2008, at the same MIS.

Ironically, it was that win four years ago that snapped the second-longest winless drought in Earnhardt's career, a 76-race winless streak. Add those numbers up, and Sunday's win was only his second in 221 starts.

Earnhardt's 19th career Sprint Cup win - in his 450th career start - ended what was coming into the race the sixth-longest stretch between wins in Cup history.

Hopes of having one of the fastest races in NASCAR history were dashed almost from the race-opening green flag thanks to the decision by Goodyear and NASCAR to mandate a different compound on left side tires to potentially slow cars down after consistent 200-plus mph bursts during practice and qualifying in the previous three days.

The fix, however, proved to be too much, as a number of tires developed blisters to the surface of the rubber, prompting either tire failure or premature changes for additional tire sets.

Ambrose, who set a track record with a qualifying speed of more than 203 mph on Saturday, was one of those victimized by the tire blistering, as well as pit strategy during the first half of the 200-lap event.

The top speed hit during the race was 215 mph, by Stewart, but that was at the highest point of a lap, not a consistent effort. By the end of the race, the average winning speed was 139.143 mph.

NOTES: The start of the race was delayed nearly two hours due to rain, but the sun eventually broke through and it was a great day for racing. ... It was not a good day, however, for all three Joe Gibbs Racing cars. Kyle Busch was forced to leave the race with engine issues after 84 laps. Busch eventually came back into the race 41 laps later. Joey Logano was involved in a wreck with David Gilliland and Kasey Kahne with 75 laps left. Logano tried to avoid Gilliland, whose car slipped alongside the outside wall, and then Kahne was collected in the resulting wreck. And then Denny Hamlin wrecked his car on Lap 134, with the car being destroyed by a resulting fire. Hamlin was able to get out of the inferno without injury, although he did inhale some of fire retardant chemicals.
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