It took four years, but, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally returned to Victory Lane where he last experienced it – at Michigan International Speedway.
And it was a convincing win as he drove away from his competitors, after the final round of green flag pit stops, into the lead for the final time on Lap 172 and holding off Tony Stewart to win the race. It ended a 143-race winless streak and was his 19th Cup victory.
“I didn’t know when it was going to happen, I was getting impatient, but I knew it was going to come,” said Earnhardt who led a race-high 95 laps of the rain-delayed 400-miler.
Almost at a loss for words the winner said “great race we just had a really good car. It was pretty amazing; those last 15 laps were the longest ever.”
Then NASCAR’s most popular driver dedicated the race to his long suffering fans “The Junior Nation.”
“To do it for my fans, they stuck behind me for all these years … I know exactly what they've been thinking about and how long they've been wanting us to get to victory lane," Earnhardt said. "So this was for them. I appreciate their loyalty and support. We wouldn't have made it victory lane without (them)."
Earnhardt said of an adjustment crew chief, Steve Letarte made. “Well, yeah, I don’t know what all he did, but he made it right.”
With the win Earnhardt is now four points behind series leader, Matt Kenseth, who finished third. Greg Biffle was fourth and Jimmie Johnson was fifth.
While Earnhardt’s teammates came over to congratulate him Tony Stewart mocked it “it's not a national holiday, guys.” But then added, seriously, “I was just overdriving trying to keep up with him.”
Kenseth said “it was kind of a long day. We were pretty good in the beginning of the race and got shuffled back and it was tough to work traffic today. They got the setup good on the last two runs and had good pit stops and we were able to stand on the gas and work our way up there to third.”
Marcos Ambrose won the pole, his first, with an eye-popping 203.241mph in part due to a track repaving. It was the first time in 25 years that anyone qualified over 200mph, and first time anyone went over 200mph at a non-restrictor plate track.
With those high speeds there was a tire blistering issue which caused NASCAR and Goodyear to bring different left-side tires for an additional final practice.
Sunday’s two-hour rain delayed race was a disaster for the three Joe Gibbs Racing cars which were eliminated in crashes and mechanical issue.
How did Earnhardt feel about ending his winless drought? "I thought it would be all relief, but it wasn't relief at all. It was all excitement.”