Following the conclusion of Sunday’s LifeLock 400, Dale Earnhardt Jr. must’ve felt like the guy on the game show Deal Or No Deal who turns down a lucrative offer from the banker when he is left with the $1 million case and the $1.00 case, only to find out that he possesses the one with seven figures.
In other words, luck was clearly on Dale Jr.’s side as he took the checkered flag in Michigan, ending a 76-race winless drought.
It all started with 53 laps to go – that was when the 88 car came to pit road and filled up its gas tank for the final time.
Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. made a tremendous gamble by choosing not to bring the car back and get gas the remainder of the race, thus forcing his driver to conserve fuel – lots of fuel.
As the laps dwindled down, it looked as though Dale Jr. was well on his way to Victory Lane after passing and pulling away from Jamie McMurray, another driver who was trying to stretch out his fuel mileage.
But, things suddenly took a turn for the worse when Sam Hornish Jr. spun two laps from the finish.
The yellow flag came out, meaning that the LifeLock 400 would go into NASCAR’s version of overtime and the race would be extended by two laps.
Car 88 was already running on fumes, so the chances of making it to the end looked to be slim to none.
Dale Jr. was so low on fuel that he had to shut off the car’s engine and coast under caution.
With the engine shut off, he obviously could not control his speed and ran ahead of the pace car for much of the caution period, which would be illegal for any other driver besides Little E.
Then, with Dale Jr. leading the pack, the green flag waved for the last time. It was apparent that Dale Jr. was staying off the throttle and running significantly lower speeds than his competitors in a last-ditch attempt to avoid running out of gas.
Kasey Kahne and Matt Kenseth were in hot pursuit of the 88 car as the field took the white flag, when, like a beckoning from the heavens, the caution came out.
Just as the leaders were heading off into Turn 1, Patrick Carpentier and Michael Waltrip got tangled up in a last-lap crash. The yellow lights flashing all around the two-mile oval signified that the race was over, and all Dale Jr. had to do was make it to the finish line running a reduced speed.
The No. 88 Mountain Dew Amp Energy Drink Chevrolet might’ve been spittin’ and sputterin’ just to get there, yet nonetheless, Little E found his way back to a place he hadn’t been to in over two years: Victory Lane.
Why was this Dale Jr.’s lucky day?
For one, he must’ve been driving a hybrid out there. His car was able to get exceptional fuel mileage, running 55 laps (roughly 110 miles at Michigan International Speedway) on a single tank.
Dale Jr. was extremely fortunate to not run out before the checkered flag waved.
For another, he got away with breaking the rules under the second-to-last caution when he drove ahead of the pace car. It’s called the “pace car” because it paces the field, meaning that none of the cars competing in the race should get ahead of it!
It will be interesting to see if NASCAR will black-flag somebody else for doing the exact same thing that Dale Jr. did.
Finally, Dale Jr. should probably send Carpentier and Waltrip “thank you” cards in the mail.
Their crash on the final lap sealed the deal for him. Had that caution not come out, Kahne and Kenseth would’ve both blown by Dale Jr. like he was standing still.
Compared to the speeds they were running, the 88 car was practically a sitting duck on its empty fuel tank. Even worse, chances are his car would’ve finally bit the dust if the last lap was ran under green, leaving Kahne and Kenseth to duke it out for the win with Dale Jr. limping to the finish as one of the last few cars on the lead lap.
But, fortunately for Dale Jr. & the 88 crew, none of that happened, and as a result, all is well in the world.
His continent of fans can put their worries aside because Dale Jr. has won that long-anticipated race with Hendrick Motorsports (only the second of the season for the premier organization), even if it was with a 10th place car.
NASCAR can rejoice as well. Dale Jr. is the Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, or Tiger Woods of this sport, and whenever the superstar wins, it provides plenty of cooler talk on Monday.
That kind of publicity can’t be a bad thing for any sport, regardless of how the superstar might’ve won.