Notebook: Dale Earnhardt Jr. had nervous moments en route to breakthrough win
By: By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, Superior Telegram
BROOKLYN, Mich. — The last 15 laps of Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway weren’t quick enough for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
As he maintained a comfortable five-second lead over Tony Stewart and drove closer to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup victory in four years, Earnhardt was preoccupied with what might go wrong.
Four years ago, in his last victory at Michigan, Earnhardt worried that he might run out of gas. On Sunday, he worried about everything.
"I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, this was the worst -- that's the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose," Earnhardt said with a laugh. "I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough. I was like 'I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it eash -- no, I want to run it hard, get it over with.'
"So I was just in there going crazy, thinking -- and I'm looking all around
the racetgrack hoping there's no debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I was just waiting on something to happen. So that was terrifying, to be honest with you."
Ultimately, Earnhardt focused in the closing laps on the efforts of crew chief Steve Letarte and his team.
"I kept thinking about Steve and the team and how hard we have worked and how we deserved to win, and how we should win, and was hoping it would happen for everybody. That race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, and today we just whooped them really good. So that felt good."
HAMLIN ESCAPES BLAZING CAR
Capping a miserable day for Joe Gibbs Racing, Denny Hamlin's Toyota spun off Turn 4 after contact with Ryan Newman's Chevrolet on Lap 133 and slid into the infield grass.
As Hamlin drove the car down pit road, trailing oil, the car burst into flames. Hamlin parked at the entrance to the garage with the right side of his car blazing and smoke filling the cockpit. Kyle Busch's and Ryan Newman's crews ran to the scene and helped Hamlin climb from the car as safety workers used fire extinguishers to douse the flames.
It was Hamlin's first experience with fire in a race car, and not one he is eager to repeat.
"I've never actually been in that position before," Hamlin said. "I'd seen it with other guys, but I've never known what it's actually like -- but it gets hot. I thought for a second there I was OK. (The fire) was just in the back (of the car), and then something exploded in the front, and it caught on fire.
"Thankfully, we've got everything that we have safety-wise. One good thing at least is that Ryan's guys came and got me out -- and a couple of the 18 (Busch's) guys. NASCAR is a family, and any time anyone is in trouble, everyone is going to try to help. It's good that those guys were around and willing to take a chance."
Hamlin finished 34th, one position better than teammate Joey Logano, who wrecked on the backstretch on Lap 136. Busch had the best result of the JGR contingent. Engine troubles dropped him to 32nd, but at least his No. 18 Camry was running at the finish.
JOHNSON REVELS IN JUNIOR'S WIN
Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt share the 48/88 shop at Hendrick Motorsports.
On Sunday afternoon, Johnson could share a portion of Earnhardt's long-awaited success. As soon as Sunday's race ended, the five-time Cup champion hustled to Victory Lane to congratulate his teammate.
"I had to go see him and all his guys," Johnson said. "We're in the same shop, and his guys work on my car, and my guys work on his car. Seeing those smiling faces made it an awesome trip over there.
"I could just not be more proud of Junior and the dominating win he had today. As a company, we've known the confidence that was growing on that No. 88 team, and having them go on the race track today and kick everybody's butt like they did was pretty awesome."
Johnson made a move of his own. With a fifth-place finish Sunday, he climbed to fourth in the Cup standings, 33 points behind leader Matt Kenseth and 29 behind Earnhardt in second.