DALE EARNHARDT JR. WINS LIFELOCK 400 AT MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY BROOKLYN, Mich. (June 15, 2008) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a 76-race winless streak on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway after he used fuel strategy to take his...
DALE EARNHARDT JR. WINS LIFELOCK 400 AT MICHIGAN INTERNATIONAL SPEEDWAY
BROOKLYN, Mich. (June 15, 2008) -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a 76-race winless streak on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway after he used fuel strategy to take his first point-paying win with Hendrick Motorsports in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock 400.
It was that kind of a bizarre, stirring, almost unbelievable finish ... one that even prompted Earnhardt to say immediately afterward, "They can write what they want, but we won one. This is real special."
It was a race to see who could save the most fuel with strategy from team to team running full throttle. It was clear that either Earnhardt or second-place finisher Kasey Kahne were going to win or run out of fuel trying. That would leave it wide open for Matt Kenseth, who finished third, or Brian Vickers, who was fourth, or who knows what driver to win the race, depending on fuel availability.
Both Earnhardt and Kahne were nursing every drop of gas from their respective fuel tanks when Sam Hornish Jr., of nearby Defiance, Ohio, spun out with three laps remaining to bring out the yellow. A number of drivers pitted to get a splash of fuel, but not Earnhardt or Kahne. Their respective teams were in all-or-nothing lockdown.
The race came down to a green-white-checkered two-lap shootout and the leaders got on the gas as if they had fuel to burn when the green flag waved. On the final lap, Michael Waltrip and Patrick Carpentier both spun out with Earnhardt and Kahne still running one-two.
The yellow flag came out and Earnhardt was pronounced the winner, NASCAR Sprint Cup Rules stating that there's only one green-white-checkered opportunity.
Earnhardt, winning at MIS for the first time in the Cup Series, might not have won if he would had to complete the final lap under the green-white-checkered situation. He ran out of gas at the end of the front straightaway as the race was declared finished and had to be pushed back to Victory Circle.
"I felt like we had a top five car, maybe a top 10," Earnhardt said. "That last regular pit stop (with 50 laps remaining), we figured we would be about six laps short and I saved six laps of gas. I have to hand it to Tony Eury Jr., (crew chief) for being a risk-taker. I normally wouldn't take the risk of trading a top-five for a win because half the time it doesn't work out, but it was the right thing to do today."
Eury said caution periods near the end of the race helped immensely when it came to saving gas.
"Those cautions reduced it down two laps, from six," he added. "I just told Junior with 20 laps to go, 'Look, dude, we're not really going any further forward because the car didn't respond that good.' I told him to chill out and save some fuel. Worse case scenario we run out of fuel and finish 25th. If we pit and put fuel in it we're going to finish 25th, so who cares? Go for it. You're either going to be 25th or you're going to win. I could make 200 laps, but 202? We were in trouble."
When the caution came out following Hornish's spin, Eury told Earnhardt to turn the motor off, coast, and refire the engine when he had to. Earnhardt was also racing Jamie McMurray over the last few laps, both trying desperately to save fuel.
"Jamie and I were passing each other and it was really comical actually," Earnhardt said. "We were racing like hell but we were both passing each other at about half throttle."
McMurray eventually pitted for a quick splash of gas and finished 10th.
Earnhardt's first NASCAR Cup victory this year and first ever at Michigan International Speedway gave Chevrolet its first triumph at MIS since Jeff Gordon's victory in 2001.
Earnhardt's last win came in May of 2006 at Richmond.
Kahne said his car was a handful all day, but performed at its best of the final few laps of the race.
"We just kept trying to get it better," he added. "We did toward the end but it was still a 10TH or 12TH place car. We had enough fuel to finish the race if it would have ended under green."
Kenseth said he felt he might have gotten beat because of a pit stop late in the race when he was forced to all but stop exiting his pit when a NASCAR official ran in front of his car.
"That cost us the lead and two spots leaving the pits, and it really hurt us," he added. "There were a lot of strategies, and some guys could make it to the end and some couldn't and we were just not exactly in the right place to capitalize on it."
Hornish was running second to Jimmie Johnson for almost 20 laps, Hornish's strongest showing of the year, when he had to pit for fuel with 22 laps remaining. He dropped to 25th, worked his way up to 18th and then spun with three laps remaining. He wound up 22nd.