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Junior wins! Can we get an OMG?! A woo-hoo?!

- jutter@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Jun. 17, 2012

BROOKLYN, Mich. - The top of the scoring tower showed a pair of 8s.

In NASCAR, though, that’s the winning hand once again.

Four years to the weekend of his last victory in the Sprint Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his career-worst, 143-race winless streak with a victory in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

Unlike his victory four years ago – captured on a fuel-mileage gamble – Sunday’s win involved no luck. He was dominant from the start and led a race-high 95 of 200 laps.

Each time Earnhardt drove his No. 88 Chevrolet to the lead during the race, fans in the grandstands stood and roared their approval. Although the track was sold out, once Earnhardt crossed the finish line ahead of Tony Stewart, the sounds were deafening.

“I came off Turn 4 for the checkered flag and they were pretty excited all the way down the front straightaway,” said Earnhardt, who earned his 19th career victory.

“I felt good for them because they had – my fans had went through a lot to stay dedicated and they stayed loyal and they wondered why we weren’t competitive.”

Wonder no more.

Earnhardt’s win makes him a virtual certainty in this year’s Chase for the Cup, and he is second in the series standings, trailing leader Matt Kenseth – who finished third Sunday – by four points.

Greg Biffle finished fourth, and Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, was fifth.

Earnhardt’s season – he leads the series with 12 top-10 finishes in 15 races – and his performance Sunday have not gone unnoticed.

In an interview after the race on Sirius Satellite Radio, NASCAR President Mike Helton was among the first to speak publicly what many were already thinking.

“I think Junior declared today that he’s the guy to beat this year for the championship,” Helton said.

Earnhardt said the comment “means a lot.

“I hope we can prove him correct and we’ll just keep working,” he said.

Kenseth, a former champion, said he was certain Earnhardt, as well as he and his team were performing, would win this season.

“I know that even if he acts like it isn’t, it was probably a burden having all your fans talking about you and writing stuff about you not winning.

“This year you could see it was only a matter of time,” he said.

“That No. 88 has had a ton of speed and they haven’t always gotten the finishes, but they have been battling in the top-five each week. You could just see they kept knocking on the door and today they were able to kick it down.”

The start of Sunday’s race was delayed by nearly two hours from rain that moved through the area midday.

Teams were already on edge after Goodyear and NASCAR elected to change left-side tires on Saturday after blistering problems showed up during practices on Thursday and Friday.

Teams got one practice evening on the new tires, and then all the rubber laid down on the newly repaved track was washed away on Sunday, adding another unknown to the picture.

Earnhardt was among those drivers not pleased with the tire change, in part because of how well his car was performing before the switch.

“We had done so well up to this point, cognizant of the Top-10s and the laps we have ran and how steady we have been all year. I just want to keep that going each weekend,” he said.

“I felt like with the tire change we might be getting ready to have a difficult race.”

Instead, Earnhardt had his best one in years.

For Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, it was proof that a strategy long followed was finally paying off.

“If you bring fast enough race cars, you don’t have to get out of your comfort zone too far and you don’t have to get super crazy with your pit strategy,” Letarte said.

“We say it all the time: You just need to put in hard work, hard work every Sunday and this helps us understand that we are not crazy; that our goals and what we have been trying to do has been working.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick missed Earnhardt’s win but watched on TV from his Charlotte home. Before Earnhardt exited his car in Victory Lane, he took a congratulatory cell phone call from his owner.

“I was doing laps around my couch trying to end this race, man,” Hendrick said. “I was too nervous to stand still.”

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