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The drought is over! Junior back in Victory Lane

June 19, 2012, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com

Fans were able to celebrate with Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the 143-race skid came to an end at Michigan (Getty Images)

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Earnhardt Jr. leads 95 of the 200 laps and cruises to first victory in four years

At the same venue that produced his last Sprint Cup victory, four years and two days removed from his most recent visit to Victory Lane, Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke the most talked-about, most frustrating streak in motorsports.

Pulling away from defending series champion Tony Stewart at the end of the final 60-lap green-flag run, Earnhardt won Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway by a dominating 5.393 seconds to end a winless drought of 143 races.

"I know you guys have been waiting on that one," Earnhardt radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line. "I know I have."

As Earnhardt performed a wild celebratory burnout on the frontstretch, fans and crew members crowded around Victory Lane as the crowd in the grandstands stood and cheered.

The victory was the 19th in the Cup Series for Earnhardt, who solidified second place in the Cup standings, closing to four points behind leader Matt Kenseth, who ran third Sunday behind Earnhardt and Stewart.

Menzer: Admirers predict Junior has sound of a champ

Earnhardt overcame Goodyear's 11th-hour switch to a harder left-side tire, after blistering became an issue on the left sides originally supplied for the race. Earnhardt wasn't happy with the handling of his No. 88 Chevrolet during an extra practice Saturday night, but crew chief Steve Letarte found a combination that worked for the race.

Greg Biffle finished fourth, followed by five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who started from the rear of the field because of an engine change before the race but worked his way back into the top five.

Jeff Gordon, Clint Bowyer, Juan Montoya, pole-sitter Marcos Ambrose and Kevin Harvick completed the top 10.

"I've got to thank [team owner] Rick Hendrick, the whole organization, really, for sticking with me."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

Earnhardt took the lead for the first time on Lap 70, when he passed Ambrose for the top spot. From that point on, his was the dominant car -- Earnhardt led a race-high 95 laps.

"Winning races is all you ever want," Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. "You work real hard to get there, and I've got to thank [team owner] Rick Hendrick, the whole organization, really, for sticking with me.

"They could have picked another route, but they stuck with me, and we're back in Victory Lane. I appreciate everybody's support -- Rick, the company, the fans, my team ... everybody.

The start of the race was delayed for nearly two hours by rain, but by the time NASCAR's most popular driver took the checkered flag, the track was bathed in sunshine.

Video: Final Laps | Victory Lane | Press Pass

About the only blight on the landscape was Tony Stewart's response to Earnhardt's long-awaited victory. Apparently tired of questions about Earnhardt's winless streak, Stewart resorted to sarcasm.

"It's no different than anybody else that does it -- it's not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said. "This morning they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all in a state of mourning now, 'cause he's broke that string now, so I wonder what we're all supposed to think."

Kenseth, Earnhardt's longtime friend, was more gracious in his assessment of the breakthrough victory.

"This year you could see it going to be a matter of time," Kenseth said. "They've really been the guys -- that No. 88 has had a ton of speed. They haven't always gotten the finishes [because of] circumstances, but they've been battling up there in the top five each and every week. They've finished every lap.

Notes-n-Nuggets

• Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his 19th Cup Series race in his 450th start.
• The win ended a 143-race winless streak that dated back to Michigan in June 2008 (1,462 days between wins). He finished second seven times between victories.
• This is the second consecutive week a driver broke a winless streak of more than 100 races. Joey Logano broke a 104-race winless streak last week at Pocono.
• This is Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second victory at Michigan in his 26th start. and he is the 11th driver to win in 2012.
• Sunday marks Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s first victory with crew chief Steve Letarte, who ended a 115-race winless streak that dated back to Texas in April 2009 with Jeff Gordon.
• Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads all drivers with 12 top-10 finishes in 2012.
• Hendrick Motorsports earned its 203rd Cup Series victory; fourth of 2012, all in the last five races; and sixth Cup race at Michigan. All four Hendrick drivers have won in 2012.
• Chevrolet earned its seventh win of 2012 and 20th at Michigan.
• Tony Stewart (second) scored his sixth top-five this season and his fifth consecutive top-10 at Michigan.
• Matt Kenseth (third) earned his 12th top-10 in 26 races at Michigan and remains the point leader.
• Greg Biffle (fourth) notched his eighth top-five of 2012 but fell to third in points.
• Jimmie Johnson (fifth) earned only his fourth top-five at Michigan in 21 starts.
• Jeff Gordon (sixth) scored just his fourth top-10 this season.
• Juan Montoya (eighth) matched his best finish this season for just his second top-10 of 2012.
• Marcos Ambrose (ninth) tied his best finish of 2012.
• Carl Edwards (11th) finished 11th after starting 42nd due to fuel issues in qualifying.
• Austin Dillon finished 24th in his first Cup start this season.
• Joe Nemechek finished 40th in his 600th Cup Series start.

"I'm really happy for him to get that win. The championship part, I think they're definitely a contender. They've been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter what size or shape the race track. I think they're definitely, at this point in the season, one of the favorites."

Photo Gallery: Quicken Loans 400

Video Highlights: Quicken Loans 400