BROOKLYN, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended his 76-race winless string Sunday, coasting to victory at Michigan International Speedway under a caution flag with little but fumes left in his gas tank.
NASCAR's most popular driver gave his new boss, Rick Hendrick, only his second victory of the season as he somehow squeezed enough gas out of his last fillup to go three laps beyond the regulation finish in the Lifelock 400.
A spin by Patrick Carpentier on the 203rd lap brought out the final caution and probably saved the victory for Earnhardt, who ran out of gas moments after crossing the finish line behind the pace car.
"It is what it is man," the jubilant Earnhardt said. "We were going to stay out there no matter what."
Asked if he could have made it if the green flag had stayed out, Earnhardt said, "We were going to stumble to the finish and probably not win the race. We weren't going to finish. The yellow saved us.
"They can write what they want, but we won one."
After leaving the team his late father founded to drive for Hendrick's juggernaut this year, Earnhardt began the new phase of his career with two non-points victories at Daytona in February. But, despite running well so far this season, that promising start did not lead to any victories in the first 14 Cup races.
"We started out and he won the (Budweiser) Clash and the 150 (qualifying race) and we said, 'We don't have to worry about winning a race now.' Then nobody counted it because it wasn't a points race," Hendrick said in Victory Circle. "We've been waiting for this. Been so close."
Earnhardt was as relieved as he was joyful about his 18th career victory and first on Michigan's two-mile oval.
"This is pretty meaningful because it's with Rick," he said. "He's such a great man because he's been through so much. I'm glad to be able to win for him, for Tony (Eury) Jr., for the team for believing in me."
It was a typical Michigan race, coming down to who saved the most gas at the end.
As the laps wound down, driver after driver was forced to pit for a splash of gas, but Earnhardt, whose last victory came on May 6, 2006, at Richmond, wasn't about to stop.
Eury, the crew chief who followed Earnhardt to Hendrick, kept telling his drive to slow down and try to conserve gas.
It was still a big gamble with just over two laps to the scheduled 200-lap finish when former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. brought out a caution flag with a spin. That extended the race to overtime and, by the time the green flag waved again on lap 202, Earnhardt and his team had no idea if he could make it to the finish.
He did, barely.
Kasey Kahne, coming off a victory the previous week in Pocono, finished second and almost came up with his fourth victory in his last five starts, including the non-points all-star race last month in Charlotte.
"It was pretty close there," Kahne said. "We topped off there and I think we pretty much had the most fuel of anybody out there. We did the best thing we could do today to get a good finish. the team did a good job."
Matt Kenseth finished third, followed by Brian Vickers, Tony Stewart and two-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
Kenseth, who led several times, said he might have won the race if not for mishap in the pits on his last stop. A NASCAR officials, apparently thinking Kenseth was going to take four tires instead of two, walked in front of his car just as the former series champion started out of his pit. Kenseth didn't hit the officials, but the hesitation cost him valuable seconds.
"I was hoping for some kind of break (from NASCAR)," Kenseth said. "The official walked in front of the car as I was ready to go. It was either I run him down or wait for him to move. The car just came up short because of circumstances and strategy."