By admin | June 11, 2012
By Richard Allen
When Sprint Cup teams arrive at the Michigan International Speedway this weekend it will mark the four year anniversary of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s last win in NASCAR’s top division. That winless streak looked as if it might come to an end this past Sunday in Pocono but late race fuel strategy sunk any chance the popular driver might have had at victory.
Junior’s last win(June 15, 2008 in Michigan) was achieved as a result of a fuel mileage gamble that paid off in his favor. Oddly enough, two of his best chances to end the streak(2011 Coca-Cola 600 and 2012 Pocono 400) were lost because of fuel mileage letdowns.
On Sunday, Junior clearly had a car capable of winning. He ran near the front all day and led a total of 36 of the 160 laps making up the event on the 2.5 mile track. However, with fuel a major question mark as the race drew toward its close, crew chief Steve Letarte called on his driver to surrender 3rd place and head to pit road for a quick topping off of the tank. Trouble was, only a few other cars made a similar move which then buried Junior back in the 16th position for the ensuing restart.
Noteworthy of the call for the #88 car to pit is that drivers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who also use Hendrick Motorsports engines, came in as well.
Additional caution laps ultimately allowed those who gambled to conserve enough gas to make the full distance. Eventually, Earnhardt fought his way through traffic to finish in the 8th position, which moved him up to the 2nd spot in the Sprint Cup standings.
After the race, the obviously disappointed driver offered a somewhat bizarre television interview with TNT pit reporter Ralph Sheehen(It was later said that a fan not seen on camera was the cause of a distraction). After a long pause followed by a request to start over, Junior defended his crew’s decision to pit under that late caution flag. “We just didn’t want to run out of gas,” he explained. “I didn’t know those caution flags were going to be so long and they were long enough to help them guys make it on fuel. We’re not able to take them kind of chances just yet.”
Perhaps this will be the Sunday in Michigan will bring the victory that the so called ‘Junior Nation’ has now waited four years to see.
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