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Long-sought victory keeps Dale Jr. rolling toward Brickyard

For the first time since 2008, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will arrive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a race winner in the current NASCAR Sprint Cup season. That could boost his chances of joining his father as a winner at the Brickyard.

Earnhardt won his first race in 143 attempts last Sunday at Michigan International Speedway as he continues a solid season that has him second in points, just four behind leader Matt Kenseth entering the road course race Sunday at Sonoma, Calif.

A win at MIS was huge for Earnhardt on Sunday. But imagine how big it would be if Earnhardt won the Crown Royal Presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard” on Sunday, July 29 at IMS.

Earnhardt had finished second seven times since his last win in 2008. But he was dominant at Michigan, earning his 19th career Cup victory and trimming six points off Kenseth’s lead.

While the win was a long time coming, Earnhardt has six top-five and a series-high 12 top-10 finishes in 15 starts this season.

“That was a great race,” Earnhardt said in victory lane at Michigan. “We had a really good car. It’s pretty amazing. Those last 15 laps were the longest ever. I just don’t know what to think about it. I was able to do it for my fans who stuck behind me all these years. I know what they have been thinking about and how much they wanted me to get back to victory lane. We wouldn’t have made it here without them.”

Now that Earnhardt has ended his four-year winless drought, some of his Cup competitors not only expect him to be a threat at the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard but also for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

“I don't know what it means for him personally to get that win, but I know that even if he acts like it's not, it's probably a burden, having all your fans talking about you and writing stuff about you and not winning,” Kenseth said. “But this year, you could see it was going to be a matter of time. Really, they have been the guys all year. That 88 has had a ton of speed and always got finishes except for circumstances, but they have been up there battling in the top five each and every week.

“And the championship part, I think they are definitely a contender. I think they have been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter, you know, what size or shape of racetrack, so I definitely think they are at this point in the season one of the favorites.”

Earnhardt’s victory at MIS was not only hailed by the huge legion of fans that make up “Junior Nation” but also by his fellow competitors. That is one reason why more of “Junior Nation” has reason to show up at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 29 to see if the son can join his father, the late Dale Earnhardt, as a winner at the Brickyard. His father won the second Brickyard 400 in 1995.

As for his tremendous support from his fellow racers, Earnhardt believes their respect is very important.

“I guess it means I'm an all-right dude,” Earnhardt said. “When people are happy for you, they want to see you do well. That's the way I feel about people; I want to see good people do good things, and I want to see people that I think are good people have success and be happy.

“I feel like we are    I feel like we are getting stronger. One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little    even though I was happy as hell to be with (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and be able to run well and be competitive, I was a little disheartened that I didn't progress through the year, really. I didn't find more speed as the year went on. We just kind of stayed the same throughout the season, and maybe Steve looks at it a little different than I do; we don't talk about it that much.

“This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick, and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me. I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what have you, where we are, as far as being a threat to win the title. I think that's a great compliment from Matt. But we just want to    we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race. We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens.”

NASCAR also thinks having its most popular driver return to victory lane is huge for the sport. NASCAR President Mike Helton indicated in victory lane that he thinks Earnhardt “declared today that he’s the guy to beat for this year for the Championship.”

That just shows the significance that NASCAR places on Earnhardt to do well for the overall health of the series.

“Mike's an awesome dude,” Earnhardt said of Helton. “Between him and (team owner) Rick (Hendrick), it doesn't come any better when it comes to having it all together and being a sharp person. I trust him all the time for guidance and advice and leadership because he's so awesome at it.

“So it means a lot coming from him to say that. I hope we can prove him correct, and we'll just keep working.”

The victory means a lot in many ways for Earnhardt and the team.

“We're in the All-Star Race next year, so we don't have to grind it out in the Shootout,” he said. “We are back on the Winner's Circle Program, which is a big deal, to the company, as far as income and revenue. So over the last two and a half, three, four years, we have missed out on a lot of that revenue. So that's great. And we are    I've never had bonus points for the Chase (chuckling). So that's neat.

“I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and you know, we'll think about where we are points wise when that all happens after Richmond. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year.

“But it's a good deal for the team, and it feels good to win in that shop. I got moved into that shop a year and a half ago, and that shop's got all the trophies and got all the wins with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, and they are used to success. So it feels good to be able to bring those guys what they deserve, all the employees will get bonuses or what have you from this win. So the whole company sort of gets to enjoy the effect of this.

“We have got this victory bell that I get to take around for the first time since we built it. I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can. I like seeing the smiles on everyone else's    on everybody else's face. I'm going to enjoy this, and I am enjoying this. It's so awesome to see how many other people it affects and how many people are affected by that kind of what happened.”

Any time Earnhardt wins a race, it’s big news for NASCAR. And if Earnhardt should win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it will be huge news for one of the premier races on the NASCAR schedule. It also could be another boost that could catapult NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver to his first Sprint Cup championship.

                                                          ***
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All ticket orders can be made at www.imstix.com and through the IMS Ticket Office at the IMS Administration Building at the corner of Georgetown Road and 16th Street between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. (ET) Monday-Friday. For more information, call the IMS ticket office at (317) 492-6700, or (800) 822-INDY outside the Indianapolis area.
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