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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins Michigan shootout

by Tim Wohlford
Sunday, June 15, 2008

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. pumps his fist into the air after breaking his long losing streak
Mark Scheuern/AutoRacing1
In a classic Michigan International Speedway race against weather, fuel mileage and attrition, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a 2-lap shootout on fumes and old tires, winning the LifeLock 400 Sprint Cup race.  Second place went to Kasey Kahne, followed by Kenseth, Vickers and Tony Stewart.  Earnhardt benefitted by a yellow flag which shortened the shootout, as Earnhardt lacked the fuel to finish the race under green flag conditions. 

A religious person might call it divine intervention, the skeptic might say it was NASCAR giving "the call", and agnostics might call it fate.  However you think about it, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn't the fastest car today, but he certainly was the luckiest as he ended a 76-race winless stream. 

The weather was an issue at MIS once again this weekend.  Qualifications were washed out, and thunderstorms narrowly missed the track at the beginning of the race.  However, the sun was out for the green flag, and the darkening skies held off until the race was finished — barely, with storms threatening at the fall of the checkered flag.

On lap 3, Dave Blaney spun when he broke a rear axle.  The car was eventually taken back to the garage, and returned to the track on lap 28, some 22 laps down.  He finished 39th. 

When the green flew again, the crowd roared its approval as Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Kyle Busch.  Brian Vickers, however, was setting the fast lap mark, and by lap 14 was in 4th place.  Vickers finished 8th at MIS in the August 2007 race, so his strong showing wasn't exactly a surprise.  Vickers was disappointed with the end of the race, as he thought he had a car fast enough to win the race.  Vickers finished 4th, and led 44 laps.  It's obvious that Team Red Bull is no longer the doormat of NASCAR. 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane
Mark Scheuern/AutoRacing1
Dario Franchitti pitted on lap 26, and fell 2 laps down as the crews made repairs.  The Chip Ganassi Racing team had a horrible day.  At the halfway point, none of the team's cars were on the lead lap, with Reed Sorenson in 38th, Montoya in 40th and Franchitti in 43rd.  At the end, they finished 34th (Sorenson), 38th (Montoya) and 43rd (Franchitti). 

For a long time after, the race settled into a long snooze fest, which is not uncommon at Michigan.  On lap 39, green flag pit stops started.  When the smoke cleared on lap 44, Brian Vickers was in the lead, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.  The green flag racing continued, and on lap 78, another round of green flag stops left Matt Kenseth in the lead, followed by Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch.  On lap 93, the yellow flag flew for debris.  By that time, only 24 cars were on the lead lap.  When the green flag flew on lap 97, Carl Edwards took the green flag on lap 97, followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Brian Vickers Jimmie Johnson. 

However, cautions breed cautions, and the green flag didn't last long as the caution flew again on 102 for a spin by Kurt Busch.  Team Penske had a tough day, as Ryan Newman suffered a broken driveshaft on lap 75.  Sam Hornish skipped a pit stop at the end of the race to take the lead on lap 162, but cautions didn't fall his way, and he was forced to take a late pit stop for fuel.  Worse yet, he spun on lap 198, setting up the final Green-White-Checker dash.  Ryan finished 42nd, Busch 21st (one lap down) and Hornish 22nd. 

The green flag on lap 107, with Carl Edwards once again in the lead.  Roush cars traditionally do well at MIS, and by lap 114 they were running first (Kenseth), second (Edwards), sixth (Biffle), tenth (Reagan) and 19th (McMurray). 

On lap 113, JJ Yeley's miserable season continued, as his motor expired on lap 113.  Yeley finished 41st, and remains 38th in owner points. 

Perhaps one of the more surprising stories of 2008 is the struggles of Jeff Gordon.  Gordon has traditionally been strong at MIS, but something about his driving style doesn't seem to work with the newer style NASCAR Cup cars.  On lap 125 he was in 20th, finished 18th, never led a lap, and was never a factor in the race.  He is currently 9th in driver points, with no wins this season.  For Jeff, that's a bad season. 

Caution flew on lap 143, as Bobby Labonte spun into the paved infield section off of turn 2.  This bunched up the field for a 100-mile dash, and Michael Waltrip topped up with fuel in hopes of a fuel mileage run to the end.  However, as soon as the green flag fell Robby Gordon brought out another yellow when he was slammed into the turn 2 wall by David Ragan, finishing the wreck in turn 3.  Gordon finished the race 40th, Ragan 8th, and Waltrip ended up 23rd, the last car on the lead lap.

Most of the field came into the pits in what figured to be a possible fuel run to the end.  The fuel window is around 40 laps, but with help from cautions, some teams figured that they'd give it a try, or at least minimize the fuel needed in any later stop.  However, Sam Hornish stayed out, and when the green flew on lap 163 he passed Jimmie Johnson for the lead for 1 lap.

By lap 180, there are two schools of thought on pit road.  Some are starting to pit for fuel:  Hornish is first, followed by Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Tony Stewart, Biffle, Edwards and Kenseth pit by lap 190.  That left David Ragan in the lead, followed by A.J. Allmendinger, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, in what was arguably the slowest race for the lead in recent MIS history.

Allmendinger was forced to pit on lap 193.  AJ enjoys a new status in the NASCAR garage, as his 5-week "vacation" while Mike Skinner drove his car ended up vindicating Allmendinger.  Skinner had the same complaints, and same failures, as AJ.  Even more impressive was Allmendinger's willingness to "play the game", refusing to complain and showing his support for his team during this period, while learning from Skinner how to describe a bad car to his crew in a way that leads to a solution.  The team now is much improved, and today's 19th place finish shows that they are now a solid mid-pack team, albeit still out of the top 35 due to early struggles. 

All of the fuel mileage gambles seemed to go out the door when Hornish spun on lap 198.  After the pit stops, there were still 2 schools of thought — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading after rolling the fuel mileage dice, as was Mark Martin in third.  When the race restarted on lap 201, Mark Martin immediately started to run out of fuel.  Martin had lurked quietly all day, working his way up to the top 5, and his 25th place finish is no indication how strongly he ran.  Then again, the nice part about being semi-retired is that one can take gambles like this on fuel — "We almost pulled off the top-five finish, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be" concluded Martin. 

By contrast, Dale Earnhardt had enough fuel to run to the white flag as his competitors sorted out the order behind him.  In the confusion, Patrick Carpentier got punted into the front stretch wall, bringing out the caution and sealing a very popular win for Earnhardt.  Earnhardt made it back to take the checkered flag, but lacked the fuel to even get to Victory Lane via the wrong way route on pit road.  In other words, he probably would've run out of gas on the last lap under power if the caution hadn't come out.  The crowd didn't mind the lack of a burnout, as they roared their approval as he climbed from the car.  "We didn't have enough," commented Earnhardt.  " We run out coming to the white, stumbled off the straightaway so we were close.  We were going to stumble to the finish, probably not win the race but the caution saved us.  They can write what they want but we won one."

- NASCAR's next stop is in the wine country of Sonoma, at Infineon Raceway.  Unofficially, Kyle Busch (12th today) keeps his points lead going to California, followed by Jeff Burton (15th today) and Earnhardt. 

- MIS spokesmen admitted to 28,000 unsold seats at MIS.  At one time, MIS sold out 30 consecutive NASCAR races, with seating capacity growing from 50,000 to 137,243 (reduced to 136,384 in 2007) during that time.  The last sellout race was in August, 2005.  The local camp grounds had noticeably light business compared to previous years.  While track officials blame high fuel prices, perhaps the real story is the net loss of 500,000 jobs in Michigan since 2001, many of which coming from manufacturing, particularly the auto industry. 

- Scott Riggs will have to get into the next race on time, as his car fell to 36th in owner points, joining his team mate in that situation.  Both cars suffered a 150-point penalty levied due to improper wing placement last May, and their crew chiefs remain on suspension.  AJ Allmendinger will also have to qualify to get in, but he gained slightly on 35th spot.  With their finishes today, Sam Hornish and Michael Waltrip are back in the top 35.  Dario is in 39th spot, some 235 points behind the 35th-place car, and JJ Yeley remains in 38th spot. 

- If MIS is all about horsepower, the Dodge boys seem missing a few stallions.  Kasey Kahne finished second, and his team mate finished 9th, but those were the only Dodges in the top 20.  Six of the bottom 13 were running Dodges.  In Happy Hour practice, those same 2 Dodges were the only Mopars in the top 15.  One wonders why Penske — which has Ilmor at its disposal, and is slated to produce engines next year for NASCAR's truck and Nationwide series — finds itself short of horsepower.  There were, however, a large number of the new Challengers (with a Hemi!) in the parking lot.

Results

FIN

ST CAR DRIVER MAKE SPONSOR PTS/BNS LAPS STATUS
1 3 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Chevrolet AMP Energy / National Guard 190/5 203 Running
2 9 9 Kasey Kahne Dodge Budweiser / LifeLock 170/0 203 Running
3 16 17 Matt Kenseth Ford Carhartt 170/5 203 Running
4 18 83 Brian Vickers Toyota Red Bull 165/5 203 Running
5 12 20 Tony Stewart Toyota The Home Depot 160/5 203 Running
6 6 48 Jimmie Johnson Chevrolet Lowe's 160/10 203 Running
7 4 99 Carl Edwards Ford Office Depot 151/5 203 Running
8 13 6 David Ragan Ford AAA Insurance 147/5 203 Running
9 27 19 Elliott Sadler Dodge McDonald's Big Mac 138/0 203 Running
10 23 26 Jamie McMurray Ford Crown Royal Cask No. 16 139/5 203 Running
11 26 15 Paul Menard Chevrolet Sylvania / Menards 130/0 203 Running
12 10 29 Kevin Harvick Chevrolet Shell / Pennzoil 127/0 203 Running
13 1 18 Kyle Busch Toyota M&M's 129/5 203 Running
14 5 11 Denny Hamlin Toyota FedEx Freight 126/5 203 Running
15 2 31 Jeff Burton Chevrolet AT&T Mobility 118/0 203 Running
16 19 28 Travis Kvapil Ford FreeCreditReport.com 115/0 203 Running
17 17 1 Martin Truex Jr. Chevrolet Bass Pro Shops / Tracker 112/0 203 Running
18 8 24 Jeff Gordon Chevrolet DuPont 109/0 203 Running
19 39 84 A.J. Allmendinger Toyota Red Bull 111/5 203 Running
20 7 16 Greg Biffle Ford DISH Network / DishDVRs 103/0 203 Running
21 22 2 Kurt Busch Dodge Miller Lite 100/0 203 Running
22 35 77 Sam Hornish Jr. * Dodge Mobil 1 102/5 203 Running
23 43 10 Patrick Carpentier * Dodge LifeLock 94/0 203 Running
24 38 55 Michael Waltrip Toyota NAPA AUTO PARTS 96/5 203 Running
25 15 8 Mark Martin Chevrolet U.S. Army 88/0 203 Running
26 11 07 Clint Bowyer Chevrolet Jack Daniel's 85/0 201 Running
27 24 38 David Gilliland Ford FreeCreditReport.com 82/0 201 Running
28 42 78 Joe Nemechek Chevrolet Furniture Row/ DenverMattress.com 79/0 201 Running
29 36 45 Terry Labonte Dodge Marathon American Spirit Motor Oil 76/0 201 Running
30 25 5 Casey Mears Chevrolet CARQUEST / Kellogg's 73/0 200 Running
31 20 43 Bobby Labonte Dodge Marathon American Spirit Motor Oil 70/0 200 Running
32 31 01 Regan Smith * Chevrolet DEI / Principal Financial Group 67/0 200 Running
33 34 66 Scott Riggs Chevrolet State Water Heaters 64/0 200 Running
34 32 41 Reed Sorenson Dodge Target 61/0 199 Running
35 28 44 David Reutimann Toyota UPS 58/0 199 Running
36 37 21 Bill Elliott Ford Motorcraft 55/0 199 Running
37 33 00 Michael McDowell * Toyota Champion Mortgage 52/0 198 Running
38 21 42 Juan Montoya Dodge Big Red Slim Pack 49/0 194 Running
39 29 22 Dave Blaney Toyota Caterpillar 46/0 179 Running
40 30 7 Robby Gordon Dodge Camping World/ RVs.com 43/0 150 In Pit
41 40 96 J.J. Yeley Toyota DLP HDTV 40/0 116 Out of Race
42 14 12 Ryan Newman Dodge Alltel 37/0 114 Out of Race
43 41 40 Dario Franchitti * Dodge Juicy Fruit Slim Pack 34/0 30 Out of Race

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