Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rating the Quicken Loans 400: 4 Stars ****

He did it. NASCAR’s most famous son won his first race in four years at the same track and on the same holiday as the last one: on Father’s Day. Dale Earnhardt Jr. spanked the field Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. Although all of the attention will obviously focus on Dale Jr., there was also the rest of a race, and it gets a 4 Star Rating.
It took 143 tries since that June day in 2008 when Earnhardt Jr. coasted across the finish line to win his last race. Now, I’m not going to say it is better to have it this way because fans of any driver would say life would be great if their driver won every race, but Earnhardt Jr.’s odyssey to reach Victory Lane made Sunday a pretty special day.
As we said last week after Joey Logano’s win at Pocono, for whatever reason getting that first win, either in a career or a very long time, is extremely difficult. Just ask Martin Truex Jr. or A.J. Allmendinger.
Logano got caught up in a wreck at Michigan, but don’t be surprised if he contends for several more wins before the season is over. The same can also be said for Earnhardt Jr.
Like it or not, Earnhardt Jr.’s win Sunday was a big moment in the sport. The stands at a racetrack haven’t shook like that since … well, a very long time. Earnhardt Jr. is the most popular driver in the sport, and therefore a large portion of the NASCAR fan base had been sitting on its collective hands for four years.
People will also talk about Earnhardt Jr. and the #88 team now as a legitimate championship contender. However, that team would’ve contended for the championship with or without a regular-season win. This is a Hendrick Motorsports team that has run as consistently well as any team in the sport this year. It was just a matter of time before the win happened.
The race itself was OK. The action on the track might have been a tad better than expected aside from Earnhardt Jr. pulling away from everybody during the final run of the race. However, NASCAR and Goodyear narrowly sidestepped the second edition of the 2008 Brickyard 400 when the race had to be stopped every 10 laps or so because tire wear was so horrible.
Plenty of teams had issues with the tires Sunday, but thankfully no tires blew out while at speed on the track. Drivers entered Turn 1 at 215 mph. A blown tire at that point would’ve been plenty dangerous.
Instead, Denny Hamlin provided the danger highlight of the day when he spun out on lap 133 and his car caught on fire as he drove down pit road. He was OK, but that will also likely be forever imbedded in the highlight package for Earnhardt Jr.’s streak-busting win.
So, next week the series heads out to California for the second time this year to bob-and-weave through the myriad of turns at the road course in Sonoma. That might be a bummer for Junior Nation considering he has never had a top 10 at that place.
Anyway, now that the trip through the repaved tracks is over, the upcoming schedule should be entertaining. The road course is next week, followed by the return to Kentucky and the Fourth of July weekend race at Daytona.
Hold on to the couch with both hands next week. Sonoma has been the site of intense races in recent years, and that should be no different this weekend.
Have a great week, everybody.

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