Dale Earnhardt Jr ended a four-year winless streak in dominant fashion on Sunday by taking victory in the Michigan NASCAR Sprint Cup race.
NASCAR's most popular driver finally got back to victory lane in a points paying event following a performance worthy of a championship-calibre team. Earnhardt led nearly half the distance and looked untouchable in the closing stages, when reigning champion Tony Stewart was his closest contender.
Following the final stops for fuel, where the frontrunners went for two new tyres, Earnhardt was in a league of his own as he was able to stretch the gap to Stewart (Stewart-Haas) to almost six seconds, pulling away to see the chequered flag first 1,463 days after he last did so at the same track in what was his first season as a Hendrick driver.
Earnhardt and his team dealt best with an unexpected tyre change that threw a curve ball to all teams after Goodyear was forced to switch the left-side tyre specification for a harder one for the race to try to avoid blistering. Morning rain, which delayed the race for nearly two hours, made conditions even more treacherous ahead of the 400-mile event.
"That race four years ago was a fuel-milleage race," said Earnhardt. "Today we just 'whooped' them really good. So that feels good."
Ford drivers dominated most of the first half of the race but in the end points leader Matt Kenseth was the best of them, finishing third ahead of his Roush Fenway team-mate Greg Biffle and Hendrick's Jimmie Johnson.
The five-time Cup champion was strong all day long, recovering from the back of the grid following an unplanned engine change on Sunday morning. Although he had as much speed as Earnhardt in the end, the long green-flag stretch that covered the last 60 laps made it hard for him to really get into contention.
Johnson, who crossed the finish line running out of fuel, was also hampered to some extent by blistering right-side tyres, as were Biffle and Hendrick man Jeff Gordon, who came home sixth.
Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer was Toyota's leading contender all afternoon and finished seventh, edging Earnhardt Ganassi's Juan Pablo Montoya, who enjoyed his best race of the season thus far, beating early race leader and polesitter Marcos Ambrose (Petty) to eighth.
Results - 200 laps: Pos Driver Team/Car Time/Gap 1. Dale Earnhardt Jr Hendrick Chevrolet 2h52m29.000s 2. Tony Stewart Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 5.393s 3. Matt Kenseth Roush Fenway Ford + 5.891s 4. Greg Biffle Roush Fenway Ford + 7.706s 5. Jimmie Johnson Hendrick Chevrolet + 16.549s 6. Jeff Gordon Hendrick Chevrolet + 17.684s 7. Clint Bowyer Waltrip Toyota + 19.598s 8. Juan Pablo Montoya Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet + 21.725s 9. Marcos Ambrose Petty Ford + 22.872s 10. Kevin Harvick Childress Chevrolet + 23.942s 11. Carl Edwards Roush Fenway Ford + 24.509s 12. Martin Truex Jr Waltrip Toyota + 24.641s 13. Brad Keselowski Penske Dodge + 28.250s 14. Jamie McMurray Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet + 31.109s 15. Ryan Newman Stewart-Haas Chevrolet + 1 lap 16. Bobby Labonte JTG Daugherty Toyota + 1 lap 17. Aric Almirola Petty Ford + 1 lap 18. Landon Cassill BK Toyota + 1 lap 19. AJ Allmendinger Penske Dodge + 1 lap 20. Casey Mears Germain Ford + 1 lap 21. Jeff Burton Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap 22. Paul Menard Childress Chevrolet + 1 lap 23. David Ragan Front Row Ford + 1 lap 24. Austin Dillon Childress Chevrolet + 2 laps 25. Dave Blaney Baldwin Chevrolet + 2 laps 26. Travis Kvapil BK Toyota + 3 laps 27. David Gilliland Front Row Ford + 3 laps 28. Regan Smith Furniture Row Chevrolet + 3 laps 29. Mark Martin Waltrip Toyota + 5 laps 30. Kurt Busch Phoenix Chevrolet + 6 laps 31. Ken Schrader FAS Lane Ford + 7 laps 32. Kyle Busch Wood Brothers Toyota + 43 saps Retirements: Kasey Kacne Hendrick Chevrolet 151 laps Denny Hamlin Gibbs Toyota 132 laps Joey Logano Gibbs Toyota 125 laps Tony Raines Baldwin Chevrolet 68 laps JJ Yeley BK Toyota 67 laps Michael McDowell Parsons Ford 41 laps Mike Bliss Humphrey-Smith Toyota 35 laps Joe Nemechek NEMCO Toyota 32 laps Scott Riggs R3 Chevrolet 27 laps Josh Wise Front Row Ford 9 laps Trevor Bayne Wood Brothers Ford 7 laps