Earnhardt catches a break, then breaks out of his slump

His victory at Chicagoland ends 19-race losing streak

Auto Racing

July 11, 2005|By Ed Hinton | Ed Hinton,ORLANDO SENTINEL

JOLIET, Ill. - When Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally had a break or two go his way yesterday, after half a season of miserable luck, he seized the moment and wouldn't let go.

He blasted out of a 19-race Nextel Cup winless streak, and out from under the microscope of NASCAR fans, with a victory in the USG Sheetrock 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, where he'd never finished higher than 10th.

At times speechless in Victory Lane, and seeming as astounded as he was euphoric, Earnhardt gasped.

"This is a long time coming, man," he said. "It's real emotional. More than I can handle right now."

His red No. 8 Chevrolet still wasn't up to the par that won him six races last year. But Earnhardt, like his late father before him, found a way to carry the car in the waning laps.

"To be quite honest, our car was not as good as Junior made it look," said Steve Hmiel, who took over as interim crew chief in May, bent on bringing the team out of the doldrums. "Junior drove the wheels off it. I could see how high his elbows were. He was in there wheeling the heck out of his car."

Earnhardt's triumph came at the expense of one of his best friends, Matt Kenseth, who dominated most of the race but then lost by using what was probably the right pit strategy.

"We obviously didn't have the best car today," said Earnhardt, whose previous victory was in November in Phoenix. "Matt Kenseth had it, hands down. But we had the pit strategy at the end that put us in position to win."

With 20 laps to go, Kenseth pitted for the prescribed four tires. Earnhardt, who'd been no match for his buddy all afternoon, asked Hmiel to give him just two tires, and get him out of the pits quicker.

The first part worked. Earn- hardt was first out of the pits - to the roared delight of an estimated 90,000 at the track - and second only to Scott Wimmer, who hadn't pitted at all. Kenseth came out ninth, but with a freshly shod Ford more than capable of running down Earnhardt's Chevrolet.

Earnhardt caught the crowning break when Jeff Gordon crashed to bring out the final caution and cut Kenseth's green-flag window for catching Earnhardt to only the final 13 laps.

But on that last restart, Earnhardt first had to get around Wimmer, which he did with 11 to go, and then hold off the fast-closing Kenseth the rest of the way. Kenseth, who has not won since March 2004 at Las Vegas, ran out of laps and wound up second, less than three-tenths of a second behind Earnhardt.

"That's the kind of thing you have to rely on a driver to do," Hmiel said. "When you make a call like that, and put him out there on not as good tires as somebody else has got, and the other guy's coming [to cut] a tenth of a second a lap in your mirror, you can't mess up. You gotta run hard, you gotta protect your position.

"And Junior knows how to do that."

It was all a sort of rush for Earnhardt, who'd eased almost unnoticed into the top 10 earlier in the race, with his crew making small improvements and getting him out quickly on his pit stops.

"We pretty much led the whole race," said Kenseth, who led 176 of the 267 laps. "It was just disappointing to give it away. You hate not to be a gracious loser, but it's tough to lead almost every lap and then get beat at the end on pit strategy."

NOTES: Jimmie Johnson, the series points leader, came back from a lap down to finish third, followed by Brian Vickers and Tony Stewart. Greg Biffle, second in the standings, finished 11th and fell from 73 to 108 points behind Johnson. ... The victory moved Earnhardt up to 13th place, 115 points behind 10th-place Kurt Busch and 491 points behind Johnson. ... Four-time series champion Gordon, who finished 33rd, had his sixth finish of 30th or lower in the past eight races. He fell to 15th place in the standings, 502 points behind Johnson.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Results

NASCAR Nextel Cup

USG Sheetrock 400

At Joliet, Ill. Lap length: 1.5 miles (Starting position in parentheses)

1. (25) Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chevrolet, 267, $325,033. 2. (4) Matt Kenseth, Ford, 267, $265,201. 3. (1) Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 267, $217,266. 4. (5) Brian Vickers, Chevrolet, 267, $146,300. 5. (13) Tony Stewart, Chevrolet, 267, $169,561.

6. (22) Jeremy Mayfield, Dodge, 267, $135,220. 7. (28) Ricky Rudd, Ford, 267, $130,564. 8. (19) Kurt Busch, Ford, 267, $148,775. 9. (3) Casey Mears, Dodge, 267, $125,608. 10. (20) Mark Martin, Ford, 267, $112,375.

11. (6) Greg Biffle, Ford, 267, $107,625. 12. (33) Rusty Wallace, Dodge, 267, $123,458. 13. (26) Bobby Labonte, Chevrolet, 267, $126,350. 14. (24) Kyle Busch, Chevrolet, 267, $99,600. 15. (15) Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 267, $115,058.

16. (31) David Stremme, Dodge, 267, $84,800. 17. (30) Scott Wimmer, Dodge, 267, $110,158. 18. (8) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 267, $121,458. 19. (9) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 267, $129,936. 20. (43) Jason Leffler, Chevrolet, 267, $93,050.

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