Monday, June 18, 2012 16:06
The racing world let out a collective sigh of relief when Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 flashed across the finish line in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday ... five seconds ahead of quasi teammate Tony Stewart. Ironically, Junior’s last win was at Michigan—four years and 143 races ago. The victory also trumped every other motorsports story of the weekend, including the epic 24 Hours of Le Mans.
While Junior’s Michigan fans roared in jubilation, the Twitter world exploded. Tweets from the likes of Brad Paisley, Mario Andretti, Ron Capps and Paul Tracy appeared. Jimmy Vasser had one of the best: “Pretty touching on Father’s Day, break out the moonshine.” Ryan Briscoe summed Junior’s win the best, writing: “America’s national nightmare is over.”
Another potential nightmare shaped up before the race even started. Michigan’s new track surface blistered the old track record—as well as the tires on most cars. Marcos Ambrose set a modern-era track record of 203.241, making it the third fastest of all time behind Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott. NASCAR then stepped in with a new, harder compound tire to alleviate the potential safety problem.
Junior was not happy with the new tires, and neither were the other drivers. The first laps were a world class skating exhibition as NASCAR’s finest finessed their cars around Roger Penske’s 2-mile rink without a major incident. Junior’s pit boss Steve Latarte then added a spring rubber to quell complaints from the No. 88 cockpit. It was magic. Junior vaulted to the front of the pack, a spot he held for nearly all of the remaining laps. Despite some spirited challenges, nobody had anything for Earnhardt.
Team owner Rick Hendrick is said to have gently reminded Dale Jr. that his belief in the son of a legend was costing a million dollars a year. That’s what prompted the crew chief swap last year. It was another magic move. “He’s (Junior) comfortable. He’s confident. You have to give Steve Latarte so much credit. When I made that crew chief change I said ‘Stevie, I know you will be good to Dale.’ And he took that responsibility… Dale has complete confidence in Steve and Steve knows what Dale wants in a car. When you get that chemistry. It’s hard to find, it’s hard to manufacture. Right now they’ve got it goin’ on.”
Earnhardt is now the Hendrick standard bearer, not Johnson, not Gordon, not Kahne. He’s just four points out of the championship lead. Could this be THE year? We’ll know more after race 26, but if the current trend holds true, Junior Nation’s roar will be heard around the world.
Way to go Junior from all of your RCG fans.