Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew celebrate his win on Father's Day during the Sprint Cup Series Quicken Loans 400 race at the Michigan International Speedway on June 18, 2012.
BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt, Jr., remembers exactly what it felt like four years ago to the day.
As he drove around the two-mile oval at Michigan International Speedway that day, he was terrified. Terrified of losing. Wondering what was going to happen to spoil those final laps of what ultimately became a win.
On the four-year anniversary of that win he felt the same thing in the final laps of his win Sunday in the Quicken Loans 400 at MIS.
When he crossed the finish line Earnhardt ended a four-year, 143-race Sprint Cup drought, winning exactly four years after he won his last Sprint Cup race - the LifeLock 400 on June 17, 2008.
"I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago," Earnhardt said. "Today, this is the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose. I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough."
Between then and now, there may have been times Earnhardt remembered going winless in four years. The seven near-misses, finishing in second place. The lost opportunities to shake an invisible, hovering monkey off his back.
But Earnhardt took little time to consider all of that after winning the Quicken Loans 400.
"It feels good to win," said Earnhardt, who earned his 19th career Sprint Cup win. "But in a day or two, I'll be thirsty for the next one."
Matt Kenseth, who finished third behind Earnhardt and Tony Stewart, said he couldn't articulate what the win meant to Earnhardt.
"But even if he acts like it's not, it's probably a burden," Kenseth said. "But this year you could see it was going to be a matter of time. You could see they kept knocking at the door. They were really fast all weekend."
Entering the weekend, Earnhardt had five top-five finishes in 14 Sprint Cup starts this season. This weekend, Earnhardt had the fourth-fastest average lap time of 200.658 miles per hour in Thursday's practice but started 17th on Sunday. Earnhardt said he wasn't comfortable with his car in the three days leading up to the Quicken Loans 400, which included a NASCAR-mandated left-side tire change on Saturday.
"I don't know what [crew chief Steve Letarte] did, but he made it right," Earnhardt said. "And the thing was real fast. The tire was a tough one, a little bit of a curveball, but we didn't have any trouble."
With the win, Earnhardt is second in the drivers points standings with 561, only four points behind Kenseth. Earnhardt's win cemented one of Kenseth's opinions of Earnhardt and his crew, including chief Steve Letarte.
"They're definitely a contender," Kenseth said.
Stewart wasn't defiant when he was asked about what Earnhardt's win meant, but he was not as diplomatic as Kenseth. June 17, 2012, was nowhere near being designated "a national holiday."
But Stewart acknowledged the fact that Earnhardt drove the speedier car Sunday.
"Dale had the fastest car all day," Stewart said." He could run the same pace the whole run. We could do it for the first half of the run and then lose pace."
Earnhardt led for 95 laps of the race, but didn't take his first lead until the 70th lap. He led for the next 12 laps but after a caution flag from the 82nd to 86th laps, Stewart jumped out to the lead in the race, which had shrunk to 34 of its original 43 drivers.
Earnhardt again took over the lead on the 105th lap, going inside on Turn 3 to move in front of Stewart, then took his fourth lead on the 126th lap, leading for the next 37. After a flurry of short lead changes, Earnhardt reclaimed the lead for the last time on the 171st lap.
As the laps decreased, Earnhardt's lead over Stewart ballooned from 2.218 seconds with less than 20 laps to go, up to nearly six seconds with four laps left in the 200-lap race.
"At the end of the race, that thing was like a rocket," Earnhardt said. "I couldn't slow it down, it was so fast."
At that point, something outrageous had to happen in order for Earnhardt to lose this lead. He looked around the track for debris. He anticipated a hunk of flying metal coming in the direction of his Chevrolet, specially painted for this weekend's race to promote the movie, "The Dark Knight Rises."
"I was waiting for something to happen," Earnhardt said. "That was terrifying, to be honest with you."
It didn't. On a weekend filled with tire blistering and mechanical problems for drivers, Earnhardt cruised through his final laps on the two-mile oval. Finally, he spun out at the start/finish line and went to Victory Lane, relieved.
"I woke up [Sunday] morning antsy, not sure how this was going to play out," Earnhardt said. "I felt like we might be getting ready to have a different race. It turned out the exact opposite."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade
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