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Dale Earnhardt Jr. ends four-year winless streak at Michigan

. fast facts

Gearhead stats

Winner's average speed: 139.144 mph

Time of race: 2 hours, 52 minutes, 29 seconds

Margin of victory: 5.393 seconds

Caution flags: 8 for 39 laps

Lead changes: 23 among 14 drivers

Lap leaders: Ambrose 1-5; Biffle 6-26; Ambrose 27-31; Kenseth 32-48; Ambrose 49-52; Yeley 53; Biffle 54-68; Ambrose 69; Earnhardt Jr. 70-82; Blaney 83; Gilliland 84; Earnhardt Jr. 85-86; Stewart 87-104; Earnhardt Jr. 105-117; J.Gordon 118; Montoya 119-122; J.Gordon 123-125; Earnhardt Jr. 126-162; Biffle 163-164; Bowyer 165; McMurray 166; Keselowski 167-169; Burton 170; Earnhardt Jr. 171-200

Sprint Cup points

Through 15 of 36 races. The top 10 drivers plus two wild cards (based on wins) through 26 races make the Chase for the Championship.

Driver Pts. Back

Matt Kenseth 565—

D. Earnhardt Jr. 561 4

Greg Biffle 548 17

Jimmie Johnson 532 33

Denny Hamlin 514 51

Kevin Harvick 504 61

Martin Truex 497 68

Tony Stewart 491 74

Clint Bowyer 481 84

Brad Keselowski 458 107

Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official points today

BROOKLYN, Mich. — After four years and 143 races — the agonizing near-misses and all those questions about when he might finally win again — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was alone in his car, comfortably ahead and only a few minutes from victory.

"That was the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go, wondering what was going to happen — how you were going to lose," Earnhardt said. "Those laps couldn't go by fast enough."

There was no falling short this time, in the Quicken Loans 400.

Earnhardt held on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory since 2008 and did it in convincing fashion, beating Tony Stewart by 5.393 seconds. When the black Chevrolet with the green No. 88 crossed the finish line, Earnhardt ended a streak of 143 Cup races without a win and gave his legions of fans a reward for all their support.

"They stayed loyal," said Earnhardt, winner of the series' most popular driver award the past nine years. "As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thought — was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs, or running out in the yard, or whatever they do. I just wish I could see it all at once."

The victory came four years and two days after his last trip to Victory Lane in a Cup race, also at Michigan. He led 36 laps last week at Pocono but made a late stop for gas instead of trying to stretch the fuel to the end.

On Sunday, it wasn't even close — but Earnhardt was still sweating out the finish to the 200-lap, 400-mile race.

Earnhardt already had 11 top-10 finishes this season and was second in points coming in.

"Dale had the fastest car all day," Stewart said. "It's not a national holiday, guys. This morning they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all in a state of mourning now, because he's broke that string now, so I don't know what we're all supposed to think."

Earnhardt remains second to Matt Kenseth in the standings.

Like his last victory in Michigan, this one came on Father's Day — fitting for the driver whose father has been so revered around NASCAR. Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Earnhardt Jr. had lost 76 races in a row when he won in Michigan four years ago — his only victory for Hendrick Motorsports until Sunday.

"That race four years ago was a fuel-mileage race," Earnhardt said. "Today we just whooped 'em really good."

Earnhardt passed pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose on Lap 70 to take the lead, and though Stewart led for a bit, Earnhardt was in front again not long after the halfway point.

With 25 laps remaining, he was ahead by 1.978 seconds. With 10 left, he was up by 5.468.

"It just proves to us that our strategy is correct," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "If you bring fast enough race cars, you don't have to get outside your comfort zone too far."

After winning, Earnhardt stopped in front of the grandstand and spun his wheels in front of thousands of fans who were on their feet screaming.

Kenseth kept the points lead by finishing third in a race that started two hours late because of rain. Earnhardt led for 95 laps. Nobody else led more than 38.

"This is incredible," Earnhardt said. "I just didn't know when it would happen. I knew it was going to happen, just didn't know when."

LOGANO STAYING: Joe Gibbs announced that he plans to re-sign driver Joey Logano, whose contract is up at the end of the season. Logano broke a 104-race winless skid last week at Pocono.

"I was in there just going crazy. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I just was waiting on something to happen. That was terrifying."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., on Sunday's final laps

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ends four-year winless streak at Michigan 06/17/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 17, 2012 9:49pm]
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