Obviously it was a big day for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. But it also was a big day for NASCAR, for Michigan International Speedway and for Hendrick Motorsports.
For Earnhardt it was his first victory in four years and 143 races. The win moves Earnhardt from pretender to a legitimate, perhaps even the leading contender for the NASCAR Sprint Cup title. While some openly wondered about crowning a champion without a victory, Sunday eliminated that possibility – at least in Earnhardt’s case. He’s now only four points out of first place and leader Matt Kenseth said he considers Earnhardt the favorite.
“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year,” Earnhardt said. “We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me. I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what-have-you, where we are, as far as being a threat to win the title. But we just want to – we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race. We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens.”
He won in dominating style, leading 95 of 200 laps, twice as many of the next lap leader. Junior’s at his best when it’s fast and Michigan was very, very fast.
That’s where NASCAR’s BIG weekend comes in. With speeds approaching 205 mph in practice, some drivers openly wondered if things weren’t getting too fast. To NASCAR’s credit, it resisted falling back on the restrictor plates to slow the cars and instead went to a harder tire that dropped speeds about five mph and helped guard against potential tire blistering. A number of drivers were frustrated with the last minute decision to switch, including Earnhardt. But it proved to be the right move.
It was a BIG weekend for MIS. The crowd was bigger than those in recent years, despite early rain. The Michigan economy is improving and that’s one the reason. But an even bigger reason was speed. Speed brings out fans and headlines with 200 mph had to help.
And finally it was another BIG day for Hendrick Motorsports. In addition to Earnhardt, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth and Jeff Gordon sixth. Add in Tony Stewart’s second place finish in a Hendrick-built and -powered car, that’s four of the top six finishers.