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Earnhardt Jr. ends drought with win at Michigan

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 auto race at Michigan International Speedway, Sunday, June 17, 2012, in Brooklyn, Mich. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

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 of the field 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. Earnhardt held on smoothly at Michigan International Speedway for his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory since 2008, and he did it in convincing fashion, beating Tony Stewart by 5.393 seconds Sunday. 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 thrilling reward for all their support — and patience.

“They stayed loyal,” he said. “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 almost exactly four years to the day after his last trip to Victory Lane in a Cup race. That also was in Michigan on June 15, 2008. He led for 36 laps a week ago 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, waiting for the other shoe to drop during the final moments of the 200-lap, 400-mile race.

“I was in there just going crazy,” he said. “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.”

Earnhardt already had 11 top-10 finishes this season and was second in the points standings entering this race. But after another close run at Pocono, the questions kept coming about his dry spell.

That’s now over.

“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.

Earnhardt’s 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history.

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 circles. Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. “Junior” is now stock-car racing’s most popular driver.

Earnhardt had lost 76 races in a row when he won in Michigan four years ago.

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

Earnhardt moved past pole winner Marcos Ambrose on lap 70 to take the lead, and although Stewart would lead for a bit, Earnhardt was in front again not long after the race’s halfway point.

Earnhardt led on lap 171, after a pitting cycle. With 25 laps remaining, he was ahead by 1.978 seconds. With 10 remaining, he had built a 5.468-second cushion.

The end was almost anticlimactic, and it gave the team a measure of vindication after Earnhardt played it safe at Pocono.

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

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

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