Fuel gamble pays off big for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
All's well with the world: Junior finally won.
Well, all's well in the NASCAR world, that is.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win this past Sunday at Michigan served to give the sport and the sanctioning body a big shot in the arm. Not only did Earnhardt's victory snap a 76-race winless streak, the longest of his career, it also helped NASCAR in two key ways.
First, with attendance slumping this season (there were more than 30,000 empty seats at Michigan International Speedway for Sunday's LifeLock 400), it may have inspired some fans – particularly Junior fans – to ignore high gas prices and go out and purchase tickets to an upcoming race or two.
Second, it helped deflect attention away from the $225 million sexual and racial discrimination and harassment lawsuit filed against NASCAR by one of its former technical inspectors last week.
But the most important thing for NASCAR and Earnhardt fans is that by taking the checkered flag with an empty gas tank, Earnhardt's first win in over two years validates his status as a championship contender this season.
It also helped him close on points leader Kyle Busch: Junior is now just 84 points behind Busch in third place.
Too many critics seemed to conveniently ignore the fact that Earnhardt came into Michigan with top-10 finishes in 10 of the first 14 races. They kept saying there's no way he can win his first career Sprint Cup championships this season – even if he kept nailing top-fives and top-10s – unless he earned a win.
But now he has, and suddenly the power grid has shifted somewhat. If Earnhardt keeps up his string of top-10s, and maybe adds another two or three more wins in the 21 remaining races, it will be hard not to consider the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet Impala a bonafide contender for the title this season.
And if Earnhardt does win the long-coveted yet elusive title, it would not only be pandemonium for his fans, but also an even greater boost to NASCAR's sagging fortunes.
How Earnhardt won Sunday's race will go down in NASCAR lore as one of the most unique finishes in the sport's history.
Somehow, he managed to go nine extra laps around the two-mile oval – a total of 18 miles – when crew chief Tony Eury Jr. had calculated the car would run out of fuel six laps from the finish.
With so much talk in today's tough economic climate about hyper-miling – stretching fuel in our own cars with unconventional methods – Earnhardt became the poster boy on how to save gas when you need to most.
"(We were) just real lucky," Earnhardt admitted. "I've got to hand it to (Eury) for being a risk taker, not so much audacity wouldn't be a good word, but it's close to that. He's done a good job this year of getting us good finishes, better finishes than we probably should have. Normally, I would not take the risk to trade the top-five for a possible win because normally half the time it doesn't work out, but we did the right thing today."
Eury, who has been blasted by numerous Earnhardt fans for allegedly keeping Junior from winning a race up to now, made one of the gutsiest calls the sport has seen in a long time. While almost every one of the other 42 cars on the track was forced to pit for fuel late in the race – believing they couldn't make it to the finish line – Eury gambled and told Earnhardt to go for it, no matter what.
"He told me with 20 (laps) to go, 'If we go for it and we run out, we're going to finish 25th. If we pit we're going to finish 25th, so go for it,' " Earnhardt said.
That's exactly what Earnhardt did – and NASCAR and Junior fans can now breathe a lot easier: the sport's most popular driver finally made it to victory lane.
Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports (Yahoo.com) and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.
THE EARNHARDT FILE
-The number 76 figured quite prominently in Earnhardt's win Sunday. Not only was it how long he had gone without a win, but 76 was his late father’s longest winless streak and also his total number of wins. And to top it all off, Junior's win came on Father's Day.
-Junior returns this weekend to Infineon Raceway, where he was severely burned several years ago while practicing for a sports car race on a NASCAR off-weekend.
-Earnhardt is in his first season of racing for Hendrick Motorsports after eight seasons with his late father's organization, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
-Although he has two Busch Series championships, Earnhardt continues to seek his first career Sprint Cup title. His start thus far this year could finally put him over the edge to achieve that long hoped-for goal.