Dale Earnhardt Jr. is not a father, but it sure was his day on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
Earnhardt Jr. snapped a four-year winless streak in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series by taking Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 at this newly repaved two-mile racetrack. Ironically, his last victory in the series came here on June 15 2008, which was also Father's Day. Earnhardt Jr.'s 143-race string of no victories was the sixth-longest stretch between wins in series history.
The driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led a race-high 95 laps. To the crowd's delight, he crossed the finish line 5.4 seconds ahead of defending series champion Tony Stewart for his 19th career win.
"Man, this is incredible," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I just didn't know when it would happen. I knew it was going to happen, just didn't know when. We were getting pretty impatient. I have to give (crew chief) Steve Letarte and my team; the team he puts around us, all the credit. They've been building some great cars this year. We've been really strong every week, and we have just been getting better and better."
Earnhardt Jr. has been voted the most popular driver in NASCAR's premier series the past nine years. His fan club, "Junior Nation," has long waited for this victory.
"To do it for my fans, they've stuck behind me for all these years, and I know exactly what they've been thinking about and how long they've been wanting us to get into victory lane, so this is for them," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I appreciate their loyalty and their support. And we wouldn't have made it back to victory lane without it. That's who I've got to give all the credit to."
Earnhardt Jr. had finished in the runner-up spot seven times in the span of his winless streak.
Just before he hopped out of his car for his victory lane celebration, he spoke on the phone with team owner Rick Hendrick, who was not present at the track.
Earnhardt Jr. grabbed the lead from pole sitter Marcos Ambrose on lap 70 and then took command from there.
During the final round of pit stops, leader Earnhardt Jr. and second-place runner Stewart pitted on the same lap. He came out ahead of Stewart. Earnhardt Jr. then grabbed the lead for good with 30 laps to go.
Matt Kenseth finished third and remained the points leader, but Earnhardt Jr. moved to within four points of Kenseth.
Greg Biffle finished fourth, while Jimmie Johnson took the fifth spot. Johnson, who is Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate, had to start from the rear of the field due to an engine change. He qualified 10th for this race.
"It was a tough day but a good finish, so we'll take that," Johnson said. "I just couldn't be more happy for my teammate. Junior has been chipping away at it and has been so close to victory."
Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Juan Pablo Montoya, Ambrose and Kevin Harvick completed the top-10.
Just after a restart on lap 133, Denny Hamlin spun around coming off of turn four and slid on the infield grass. Hamlin's right-front tire shredded during the incident. As he came on to pit road, the damaged tire area erupted into flames. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver quickly exited his car unscathed.
"I've never been in that position before," Hamlin said of the fire. "It gets hot. For a second there, I was okay. Something exploded in the front, and it caught on fire."
There were no major issues with the tires used for this race. After several teams experienced tire blistering during Thursday and Friday's practice sessions at this newly repaved two-mile racetrack, NASCAR and Goodyear made the decision to use a tougher left-side tire for the race. The higher than expected speeds in practice at Michigan caused significantly higher left-side tire temperatures and therefore blistering.
An additional Sprint Cup practice session was held on Saturday evening at Michigan. Teams had 75 minutes to familiarize themselves with the new tires and make further adjustments to their race setups.
"I think we need to give 100 percent credit to Goodyear for this weekend," Stewart said. "What they had to do was a really hard decision. It was for the betterment of all of us as drivers and teams and for the sport."
Earnhardt Jr. was one of those drivers who was limited on his practice time due to engine concerns. He complained that his car wasn't as good as he wanted it to be after completing just 26 laps in practice. He also said, "This ain't cool," in regards to the added session.
His car ended up being the best in the field throughout the race.