Posted: Sunday June 17, 2012 7:40PM ; Updated: Sunday June 17, 2012 7:45PM
Bruce Martin
Bruce Martin>INSIDE NASCAR

Five things we learned at MIS

Story Highlights

Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke a 143-race winless streak by prevailing Sunday at MIS

It was another strong week for Earnhardt, who has a Cup series-high 12 top-10s

For the third race in a row, Kyle Busch's Toyota suffered from engine failure

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Dale Earnharst Jr. was all smiles after winning his first Sprint Cup race since June 15, 2008.
Dale Earnharst Jr. was all smiles after winning his first Sprint Cup race since June 15, 2008.
Carlos Osorio/AP

It was a day many NASCAR fans have awaited since 2008 as the sport's most popular driver -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- finally made it to Victory Lane in a Sprint Cup race. Fittingly, it came at Michigan International Speedway in the Quicken Loans 400 -- the same race he won on June 15, 2008.

Earnhardt's victory was a long time coming and so was Sunday's race as a heavy downpour delayed the start for nearly two hours. There was already plenty of drama entering this contest as a newly paved track produced the fastest speeds in NASCAR in the past 24 years with Marcos Ambrose winning the pole with a lap at 203.241 miles per hour. Ambrose was just the fourth driver to win a Sprint Cup pole with a speed over 200 mph joining Benny Parsons, Cale Yarborough and Bill Elliott.

GALLERY: 2012 SPRINT CUP WINNERS

The speeds were so fast, NASCAR and Goodyear brought in a harder left-side tire because of issues they anticipated with the grip level of the track.

But all of that was for NASCAR's gear heads of who appreciate and understand the sport's nuts and bolts. Earnhardt's victory is for his huge following of fans who've followed and idolized him as much during his long winless streak as they did when he was one of the top drivers in the sport -- regularly winning races from 2000-2006.

Let's look at the "Five things we learned from Michigan" ...

1. Finally, Dale Jr. fans can celebrate a victory -- That Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race is cause to celebrate not only for his fans, but NASCAR as a whole. That he was able to do it this year, however, should not be a surprise because he has been solid ever since the season-opening Daytona 500. In fact, he entered the race second in points just 10 behind leader Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt was dominant Sunday, scoring his first win in 143 starts. During that time, he finished second seven times. It was Earnhardt's 19th career Cup victory and trimmed six points off Kenseth's lead heading into next Sunday's road course contest at Sonoma, Calif.

This season, Earnhardt has six top-five and a series-high 12 top-10 finishes in 15 starts. That is why the end of his victory drought may catapult him to his first Sprint Cup title in 2012.

"That was a great race," Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. "We had a really good car. It's pretty amazing. Those last 15 laps were the longest ever. I just don't know what to think about it. I was able to do it for my fans who stuck behind me all these years. I know what they have been thinking about and how much they wanted me to get back to victory lane. We wouldn't have made it here without them."

Earnhardt was driving his famed No. 88 Chevrolet with a Twist as the sponsor was for the upcoming Batman movie -- "The Dark Knight Rises."

On Father's Day, it was the son of seven-time Cup champion, the late Dale Earnhardt, who also rose.

Pitting while in the lead on Lap 164, crew chief Steve Letarte made a chassis adjustment by inserting a spring rubber to improve the handling of his car. It worked as Earnhardt was able to drive away from the field and defeat defending Cup champion Tony Stewart.

"Damn, I don't know what to say," Earnhardt radioed to his crew after taking the checkered flag. "We really won it. I know you guys have been waiting on that one."

As Earnhardt was motoring his way to Victory Lane at MIS, Letarte had a chance to reflect on the win.

"This win is up there a long ways," Letarte said. "Dale Jr. really drove a great race. We had a lot of close calls and a lot of seconds. We finally won one. I'm looking forward to the Chase. He has done everything we've asked of him. He has driven the wheels off every lap and it's fun. A lot of fun."

An Earnhardt victory helps elevate NASCAR into the greater mainstream of sports. It's like Tiger Woods winning a major. It's big-time news and big-time ratings for NASCAR's TV partners. That means more exposure and a positive storyline as it hits its summer stretch of races.

NASCAR entered this season hoping Danica Patrick's participation in a full Nationwide Series schedule with a limited Cup schedule would help generate interest and additional exposure in the sport. But the driver who can really drive NASCAR onward and upward is Earnhardt.

For as big as Earnhardt's victory was, imagine how big it would be if he won his first Cup title?

Now that would be big news for NASCAR.

2. New pavement creates a blistering pace -- With 40 drivers breaking the previous track record of 194.232 miles per hour set by Ryan Newman in 2005 and with the first pole winning speed over 200 mph since Talladega in July 1987, NASCAR officials were keep a close watch on the tires and the cars in Thursday's test session and Friday's practice heading into the race. With tires suffering a blister issue NASCAR had Goodyear bring in a different batch of left-side tires that were actually made in 2006. This was a harder compound tire that was designed to endure the abuse of the high heat and new pavement.

One of the tires that came off Stewart's car had huge chunks of rubber blistering off after 30 laps but that was on the right side of Stewart's car. Those tires were not the batch brought in on late notice because the right side of the car did not show significant tire wear or blistering in practice or testing. Jimmie Johnson's Chevrolet also had problems with the right front tire while Greg Biffle's Ford had blistering on the right rear which led some drivers to have to back off the throttle to keep the tire from failing.

Brad Keselowski was running 14th when he had to pit early for a chunked tire.

The other main problem was when the drivers restarted on new tires, the cars were slipping and sliding, which created even more havoc, such as Denny Hamlin's crash on a restart on Lap 134 after Ryan Newman's Chevrolet went sideways and clipped Hamlin's Toyota.

After finishing second, Stewart assessed the tire issue.

"I thought the tires were pretty hard," Stewart said. "It was hard to run two wide through the corner. You didn't see too many guys stay side by side by the corner. Dale had the fastest car all day. He could run pretty much the same pace the whole run. We could do it for about the first half of the run and then we would lose pace."

Matt Kenseth finished third and was able to keep the Cup points lead.

"I did enjoy it," Kenseth admitted. "It was very difficult at times, especially when you had four new tires on and they were just so hard and when you had people outside and the groove was   and you had a lot of air, so it was definitely a challenge, especially on short runs and on restarts with cold tires. But overall, did a nice job with the track. I don't know what they will do next time for tires. It would be nice to have a little more grip when it's cold but yet they did a great job to bring some in here that wouldn't fall apart and that we could race on.

"Overall I really like the track. Your hope is that it gets wider before you can run anywhere on the racetrack, so your hope is it gets back to that sooner than later but overall I thought it was a competitive race and there was a lot of action out there."

NASCAR officials don't like when speeds approach 200 mph so imagine the concerns with speeds soaring over 200. Because of that, expect some major changes to the tire compounds and aerodynamic rules when NASCAR makes its second trip to MIS in August.

3. Kyle Busch is in jeopardy -- For the third race in a row, Kyle Busch's Toyota suffered engine failure and that has ruined his great streak. Beginning with his victory at Richmond in April, Busch finished first, second, fourth and third over the next four races. But with blown engines at Dover, Pocono and Michigan, his finishes have been 29th, 30th and 32nd which have dropped him to 12th in points.

Joe Gibbs Racing senior vice president of racing operations Jimmy Makar thought it was a broken rocker arm, which was yet a different engine issue that Busch experienced the last three weeks.

If Busch is going to turn his season around the JGR engine department is going to have to find the cause of their recent issues before it's too late for their driver to be a serious contender in the "Race to the Chase."

4. Stewart's second-place finish was impressive -- After Saturday's practice session, Stewart didn't have much hope of being a factor on Sunday. But he never lost faith in what crew chief Steve Addington could do to make his No. 14 Chevrolet more competitive.

"We were 27th on the sheet yesterday and had a lot of curveballs thrown at us," Stewart said. "It was a really good race car and I'm really proud of them. We did the Bristol test on Tuesday and Wednesday, so we have been in a track 11 out of 12 days in a row. So I've got a bunch of tired crew guys and a tired crew chief and I'm a tired driver but I'm really proud of the effort they put forth in the last week and a half. They did an awesome job at Pocono. We had a fast car all week until the happy hour session last night, and you know, we just couldn't get ahold of the racetrack.

"But I'm really proud of Steve Addington and our engineers. They did a great job overnight and we started the day pretty much toward the front and never really lost that track position all day. We had a pretty good car that we could pass with. It was hard to pass, but it wasn't impossible. But like I say, I was really, really proud of our guys."

Stewart and Earnhardt consider each other friends. But when asked about the impact of Earnhardt's victory the competitive side of Stewart came out after he finished second.

"It's no different to anybody else that does it," Stewart said. "It's not a national holiday, guys. This morning, they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we are all in a state of mourning now because he's broke that streak now, so I don't know what we are all supposed to think."

5. Crash ends Logano's impressive week -- Joey Logano, who drove to victory at Pocono last week, was another driver who broke a long winless streak. Logano also won Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at MIS for his fourth win in the series in the last six contests. He looked to continue that success in Sunday's Cup race before he slammed into the Turn 2 wall on Lap 127.

Logano was taken to the infield care center where he was checked and released.

"We were restarting on the outside behind the 17 and it looked like we were going to be all right but I got loose, overcorrected and got into the fence," Logano said. "We've been on a roll lately and hope to keep that going at Sonoma."

Logano is 15th in points and remains in contention for one of the two wild-card entries in the Chase for the Championship.

 
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