Junior's victory comes at a perfect time for NASCAR
BROOKLYN, Michigan -- After a week in which NASCAR had to defend itself against bad news, including continued complaints about its new car and litigation regarding racism and sexism, only one driver could save the day.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the rescue.
By winning Sunday's LifeLock 400, the most popular driver in the series shed a little sunshine on NASCAR after a week that shook the sanctioning body to its Southern roots.
Former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant filed a $225 million suit against NASCAR last Tuesday, alleging racial discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliatory termination. Grant is an African-American female.
On Friday, NASCAR president Mike Helton held a closed door meeting with Sprint Cup Series drivers and team owners and essentially told them to "shut up and race" after hearing so many complaints about the current car used in the series, formerly known as the "Car of Tomorrow."
While some may have viewed that meeting as a "diversionary tactic" to take attention away from the impending legal battle, the greatest diversion of all came when "Junior" gave his nation of fans reason to celebrate with a stunning victory at Michigan to end a 76-race winless streak. It was his first win since Richmond on May 6, 2006.
"I think it's good for the sport," Earnhardt said. "The sport has done well this year with TV ratings. Attendance is back and forth, up and down, but maybe that's more due to the heat and the gas prices and stuff like that. I think the racing is the same; the way it plays out and the drama and the excitement of coming to a race and the experience that you have all weekend or just on Sunday. It is still as fun as it has ever been.
"But I'm happy for my team, I'm happy for our corner, and it's really big. I know what it means for our little corner over here, but if it helps NASCAR and makes NASCAR happy and it does something for NASCAR, then great. I'm happy to be a part of it. Better than I won the race and nobody be happy about it."
While there were several drivers who were not happy with the outcome, mainly because Earnhardt passed the pace car several times during the final caution in an effort to save precious fuel by gassing it then cutting off the car and coasting, the sport needed a hero to win the race.
"I can understand how it might look, especially if you are not a Dale Junior fan," Earnhardt said. "I know exactly what they are going to say Monday, but hell with it.
"My fans are happy and I'm happy for them. The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race, but I got the trophy and I got to see my team and my owner and my family as happy tonight as they have been in a long time. So this win is pretty special to me."
Before Sunday, a question Earnhardt was continually asked was, "When are you ever going to win again?"
On Sunday, he gave a definitive answer.
"I never wondered, will I never win again," Earnhardt said. "The winless streak didn't frustrate me as much as most people would think, and I was so happy to be where I am and so satisfied with how we've run to this point that I wasn't really frustrated about not winning. I felt really fortunate to have what I had."
But that feeling began to change when he saw his Nationwide Series driver, Brad Keselowski, win at Nashville last week.
"It reminded me of the joy that I had forgotten," Earnhardt said. "I knew winning was going to make me happy but I forgot, really, the look on everybody's face and the look I would see once we won on Tony Junior's [Eury Jr., his crew chief] face, Rick's [Hendrick] face, my sister and all my team. I started to remember, 'I've got to get back to victory lane. I miss it so bad.' That was the motivation for me to get back to victory lane."
By getting back to victory lane, Earnhardt can now focus on the upcoming races of the "Summer Stretch." These are the races that set the stage for the "Chase for the Championship" in the fall.
"I think I have real potential and the races, especially in the Chase, are good tracks for me," Earnhardt said. "The summer stretch has always been a difficult stretch for me. Tracks like Pocono are hit or miss and the road course races, getting them in and out of the way.
"The summer stretch, we've never really been smoking hot in the last eight years. We'll see with this opportunity that Rick Hendrick has given us; we may turn that around and really surprise ourselves throughout the summer. I look at this as an opportunity."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
When NASCAR president Mike Helton held a meeting with Sprint cup drivers and team owners Friday morning, he told the drivers they should feel fortunate they are allowed to participate in this sport.
So after Tony Stewart finished fifth in Sunday's race at Michigan, he was upset with several things, including how bad his car performed in the race and how Earnhardt Jr. was allowed to pass the pace car several times during the final caution period.
But when asked how he felt after the race, Stewart tweaked Helton and NASCAR with his comments.
"Ask Mike Helton -- I don't know what we're allowed to say and what we're not," Stewart said. "I'm just thankful we're allowed to be here and be a part of this. It's just a privilege for us to be here and, according to Friday, we've all got it a lot better than a lot of us think.
"We're not allowed to have opinions now. We've all got it made here. We've all got it great. At least that is what we've all been told."