Junior mint at Michigan: Will "fumes victory" ignite a run for the crown at Homestead-Miami?
[courtesy NASCAR Media]
Much to the delight of a screaming partisan crowd, Dale Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the finish line after a nerve-wracking restart to win the LifeLock 400 at Michigan International Speedway. It was the highly-popular Earnhardt's first NASCAR Sprint Cup points victory in 76 races.
And this one had everyone biting their nails and cracking their knuckles in suspense because Junior ran low on fuel.
When other frontrunners stopped for gas with less than 10 laps top go, Earnhardt's crew chief Tony Eury Jr. decided to gamble that his driver could go the distance without stopping. He told Dale Jr. to preserve as much gas as he could, and Junior slowed his pace and dropped back in the field.
Thinking they were going to fall a lap or two short, Eury and his crew, not to mention the Earnhardt Army of fans, nervously watched the race wind down.
A late-race caution when Sam Hornish Jr. spun out of turn four set up an Alfred Hitchcock ending. Suspense raced through the crowd like a rainstorm, drenching the huge crowd in nervous anticipation.
Dale Jr. cut his car on and off as they circled the two-mile track waiting for the restart. He wiggled his Chevrolet back and forth, trying to make sure every drop of gas in the fuel cell was used.
When the flag waved to get them going again, Junior took off strong with Kasey Kahne right on his bumper. The suspense ended when Patrick Carpentier spun and brought out the caution, which meant Junior only had to make the remaining lap at a reasonable speed. He did and then ran out of gas shortly after crossing the start/finish line.
Kahne, winner last week at Pocono, was second, followed by Matt Kenseth, Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, David Ragan, Elliott Sadler and Jamie McMurray.
Kenseth, Vickers and Johnson, who led much of the race, were among the drivers who had to stop for gas.
The first caution flew on the third lap when Dave Blaney's Toyota turned sideways suddenly out of turn two. It was a quick caution, and Johnson lost no time going past Kyle Busch for the lead. Young Brian Vickers raced past Johnson for the lead on the 34th lap, and Johnson repaid the favor the next lap. It was an exciting duel for the two drivers, as they had opened a four-second lead on Earnhardt Jr. and Kenseth. Busch had dropped back in the field when everyone starting making pit stops at lap 39.
Once pit stops were complete, Michael Waltrip, who had pitted during the first caution, led several laps before stopping again. Vickers and Johnson were again in the lead.
It was another miserable day for former Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, who pulled behind the pit wall with engine problems after 30 laps.
Vickers opened up a lead on Johnson at this point in the race.
The top 10 cars at the 60-lap mark were Vickers, Johnson, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Edwards, Earnhardt, Kahne, Biffle, Gordon and Stewart.
Sam Hornish, Jr., had moved from 35th starting position to 15th, quite impressive for another former Indy 500 winner.
The second round of green-flag pit stops commenced on lap 78. Leader Vickers came in at 80 laps. When everyone had put on tires and filled up with gas, it was Kenseth out front as a result of changing two tires instead of four, which resulted in a quicker pit stop than Vickers, who changed four tires.
At 90 laps, Kenseth led with Vickers in second, almost five seconds back. Johnson was next, followed by Kyle Busch, Edwards, Earnhardt, Kahne, Biffle, Gordon and Harvick. Waltrip was 11th and Stewart 12th.
The third caution of the day, this one for debris on the track, slowed the action at 92 laps.
The race resumed on lap 96 with Edwards in front. At the halfway point, 100 laps, Edwards led Kenseth but Kurt Busch spun on the backstretch bringing out another caution. On the restart a few laps later, it was Edwards, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Vickers, Earnhardt, Gordon, Harvick, Kahne and Waltrip in the top 10.
With a much needed win, Dale Earnhardt Jr begins a coast back on track. But will there be enough to carry him all the way to the Championship? You can bet he's got an eye out for Homestead. Don't wait in anticipation to find out! Get your tickets now to Ford Championship Weekend!