DETROIT — June at Michigan International Speedway has been kind to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt, nicknamed “June bug” as a youngster by his legendary racing father, has snapped long losing streaks at MIS in June twice during his career and left each time with renewed hope of winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup championship that has so far eluded him.
At 39, Earnhardt heads on this occasion to the super-fast 2-mile oval in the Irish Hills coming off a victory at Pocono Raceway.
On Sunday, he passed Brad Keselowski (Team Penske) with five laps remaining in the Pocono 400 to take the lead and seal the deal while BK was attempting to clean debris from the front grille of his No. 2 Miller Lite Ford—a gamble he and his crew chief, Paul Wolfe, might now regret.
Earnhardt drove to his second victory of the season in his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet and assured himself a place in the Chase for the Championship.
Considering this is the first time since 2004 that Junior has notched multiple wins in a Cup season, Pocono was an important victory for him and his Hendrick Motorsports team.
“He (Keselowksi) didn’t want to let me by, but I don’t know if his motor was going to make it,” Earnhardt told reporters after the race. “That is unfortunate for him. He had me beat — I couldn’t get to him. But I have lost some in some strange ways, so it feels good to win one like that.”
In June 2008 at MIS, Earnhardt broke a 76-race victory drought.
He snapped a 143-race winless streak in June 2012 at Michigan—his first victory since that MIS win four years earlier.
Junior is third in Cup points behind leader Jeff Gordon (Hendrick) and itching to start in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at MIS and attempt to make it three wins for 2014.
“It’s elusive, man,” Earnhardt said at the Pocono postrace news conference of being competitive each week and stringing victories together in the series. “For any team it’s hard to get that competitive to where you can win races … our group has been working together for quite some years now, and each year we saw progress in performance and we’ve seen ourselves get better each year.”
Earnhardt has a very good car this year. One that might be capable of winning the Cup championship—a feat his father, Dale Earnhardt, accomplished seven times before his death in the Daytona 500 in 2001.
“We’ve been fast every week,” said Earnhardt, whose Pocono victory was his 21st in Cup races. “We kind of started that around the middle of last year. But I think we have not (yet) peaked as a team€”
Earnhardt’s win at Pocono in Long Pond, Pa., was his first at the Tricky Triangle.
“I really enjoy racing here (at Pocono),” Earnhardt said. “I used to come here as a kid because it was a summer race; just always wanted to win at this place, so it feels good to finally do that.
“I told (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) this morning—he texted me and said he wasn’t going to make it and that he’d see me in Michigan—that I’ll drink one for you after it is over with, so we were able to hold up our deal. Hopefully he makes it to Michigan and we can try to get a win there.”
Earnhardt was asked after his success at Pocono whether his No.88 was the new No.48 — six-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson’s car.
“They’re the 48 and we’re the 88, and I don’t want to be the new 48,” Earnhardt said. “I want to be the new 88. We’ll definitely continue to work hard and try to win some more races and try to leave our own mark and not a similar mark to anyone else.”
Winning back-to-back Cup races, and doing it at Michigan, where June Bug has struck in previous summers—what does Earnhardt think?
“That would be awesome,” he said. “I haven’t done that since the Nationwide days back in ‘98 or ‘99. We won a couple there back to back, I think. That’s a really good feeling. It puts you right on top of the world.”
Junior’s elation at winning at Pocono couldn’t stop him from understanding how disappointed Keselowski must have felt at giving up the lead with just a few laps left in the race in an effort to clear off a wrapper that had lodged on the grille of his race car and was causing his motor to run hot.
“You know, we are good friends, and you hate for a guy to have to lose a race in a manner like that, but I am excited that we won,” Earnhardt said. “I know that he would have definitely rather lost it to me than a few other guys out there that he is not best buddies with.”