Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) celebrates in victory lane after winning the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway. (Tim Fuller-US PRESSWIRE)
By Nate Ryan
BROOKLYN, Mich. (USA TODAY) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended a 143-race winless streak Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, winning the Quicken Loans 400.
Earnhardt rallied from a pit stop on lap 11 that dropped his No. 88 Chevrolet to 37th. Crew chief Steve Letarte made two suspension adjustments that seemed to bring the car to life, and Earnhardt was helped by two competition cautions that bunched up the field.
He took his first lead on lap 70, breezing by pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose after whizzing past Greg Biffle in second a lap earlier, and he was able to build big leads under long green-flag runs.
Earnhardt pitted from the lead with 36 laps to go and took two tires and returned to the track with a 1.5-second cushion over Tony Stewart then increased that lead to more than five seconds as the final laps ticked off.
"Good job, man," Earnhardt radioed to his crew after he crossed the finish line. "I know you guys have been waiting on that one. I know I have."
In victory lane, Earnhardt wasn't able to put his drought-ender in perspective just yet.
"The Chevrolet was real fast. Those last 15 laps were the longest laps ever," Earnhardt said. "I don't know what to think about it just yet."
Earnhardt, named by 30% of NASCAR fans as their favorite driver, gave a nod to "Junior Nation" after exiting his Hendrick Motorsports Chevy.
"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)."
Stewart finished second. Matt Kenseth, Biffle and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.
Earnhardt didn't seem to give himself a shot at his 19th career victory after an emergency practice Saturday scheduled by NASCAR because of a switch of left-side tires for the Sprint Cup race. After qualifying 17th on the old tire, he struggled in practice on the new tire and was limited to making only 26 laps because Hendrick Motorsports was concerned about putting too much stress on his No. 88 Chevrolet.
The tire drove "like it's 6 years old," Earnhardt complained. "I'd like to practice more, but I can't. My car ain't as good as I want it to be, but I can't run more laps. This ain't cool."
But it was another magical day in Michigan for NASCAR's most popular driver, whose last Cup victory also occurred at the 2-mile oval four years and two days ago, ending a 76-race winless streak.
That the win came on Father's Day carried extra significance for the son of seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt, who died on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
During a Wednesday interview with USA TODAY Sports, Earnhardt Jr. said he was getting close enough to a checkered flag to envision it.
"I daydream about it all the time," he said. "I just think it'll be a lot more release, a lot more relief and happiness. The guys I'm with and the team I'm with, we haven't experienced that together, and that'll be a great feeling to win for the first time with these guys that I've been working with that I haven't won with before. It'll just be an amazing experience."
Earnhardt is off to one of the best starts of his career - six top-five finishes and 12 top-10s in the first 15 starts of 2012.
"I feel better right now than I have in the last several years when we weren't competing well," Earnhardt told reporters Thursday at Michigan. "We were miles from winning. We were so far away from being able to compete that that was a tough question to answer. Now, it just feels like it's right around the corner. So I'm getting excited. I'm getting more and more excited the more we run this year. The last couple of weeks we seem to have improved more as a team."
Earnhardt said he didn't mind answering the incessant questions about when his next win would come because "it hasn't been that incessant. I feel like it's just a realistic inquiry, and I feel pretty comfortable answering that question. And I've been honest.
"When you ask me why we haven't won, I feel like I've told you how terrible we might have been. I'm just telling you my gut feeling. But I don't feel like (the media) have asked the question too many times because I think that if you weren't asking that kind of question, I'd be a little worried that nobody gives a dang when you're going to win."