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Junior's victory comes at a perfect time for NASCAR

BROOKLYN, Michigan -- After a week in which NASCAR had to defend itself against bad news, including continued complaints about its new car and litigation regarding racism and sexism, only one driver could save the day.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the rescue.

By winning Sunday's LifeLock 400, the most popular driver in the series shed a little sunshine on NASCAR after a week that shook the sanctioning body to its Southern roots.

Former Nationwide Series official Mauricia Grant filed a $225 million suit against NASCAR last Tuesday, alleging racial discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliatory termination. Grant is an African-American female.

On Friday, NASCAR president Mike Helton held a closed door meeting with Sprint Cup Series drivers and team owners and essentially told them to "shut up and race" after hearing so many complaints about the current car used in the series, formerly known as the "Car of Tomorrow."

While some may have viewed that meeting as a "diversionary tactic" to take attention away from the impending legal battle, the greatest diversion of all came when "Junior" gave his nation of fans reason to celebrate with a stunning victory at Michigan to end a 76-race winless streak. It was his first win since Richmond on May 6, 2006.

"I think it's good for the sport," Earnhardt said. "The sport has done well this year with TV ratings. Attendance is back and forth, up and down, but maybe that's more due to the heat and the gas prices and stuff like that. I think the racing is the same; the way it plays out and the drama and the excitement of coming to a race and the experience that you have all weekend or just on Sunday. It is still as fun as it has ever been.

"But I'm happy for my team, I'm happy for our corner, and it's really big. I know what it means for our little corner over here, but if it helps NASCAR and makes NASCAR happy and it does something for NASCAR, then great. I'm happy to be a part of it. Better than I won the race and nobody be happy about it."

While there were several drivers who were not happy with the outcome, mainly because Earnhardt passed the pace car several times during the final caution in an effort to save precious fuel by gassing it then cutting off the car and coasting, the sport needed a hero to win the race.

"I can understand how it might look, especially if you are not a Dale Junior fan," Earnhardt said. "I know exactly what they are going to say Monday, but hell with it.

"My fans are happy and I'm happy for them. The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race, but I got the trophy and I got to see my team and my owner and my family as happy tonight as they have been in a long time. So this win is pretty special to me."

Before Sunday, a question Earnhardt was continually asked was, "When are you ever going to win again?"

On Sunday, he gave a definitive answer.

"I never wondered, will I never win again," Earnhardt said. "The winless streak didn't frustrate me as much as most people would think, and I was so happy to be where I am and so satisfied with how we've run to this point that I wasn't really frustrated about not winning. I felt really fortunate to have what I had."

But that feeling began to change when he saw his Nationwide Series driver, Brad Keselowski, win at Nashville last week.

"It reminded me of the joy that I had forgotten," Earnhardt said. "I knew winning was going to make me happy but I forgot, really, the look on everybody's face and the look I would see once we won on Tony Junior's [Eury Jr., his crew chief] face, Rick's [Hendrick] face, my sister and all my team. I started to remember, 'I've got to get back to victory lane. I miss it so bad.' That was the motivation for me to get back to victory lane."

By getting back to victory lane, Earnhardt can now focus on the upcoming races of the "Summer Stretch." These are the races that set the stage for the "Chase for the Championship" in the fall.

"I think I have real potential and the races, especially in the Chase, are good tracks for me," Earnhardt said. "The summer stretch has always been a difficult stretch for me. Tracks like Pocono are hit or miss and the road course races, getting them in and out of the way.

"The summer stretch, we've never really been smoking hot in the last eight years. We'll see with this opportunity that Rick Hendrick has given us; we may turn that around and really surprise ourselves throughout the summer. I look at this as an opportunity."

When NASCAR president Mike Helton held a meeting with Sprint cup drivers and team owners Friday morning, he told the drivers they should feel fortunate they are allowed to participate in this sport.

So after Tony Stewart finished fifth in Sunday's race at Michigan, he was upset with several things, including how bad his car performed in the race and how Earnhardt Jr. was allowed to pass the pace car several times during the final caution period.

But when asked how he felt after the race, Stewart tweaked Helton and NASCAR with his comments.

"Ask Mike Helton -- I don't know what we're allowed to say and what we're not," Stewart said. "I'm just thankful we're allowed to be here and be a part of this. It's just a privilege for us to be here and, according to Friday, we've all got it a lot better than a lot of us think.

"We're not allowed to have opinions now. We've all got it made here. We've all got it great. At least that is what we've all been told."

This one is easy: Ron Hornaday Jr. and Kyle Busch in Saturday's Craftsman Truck Series race. The two nearly squared off in the garage area afterwards.

Hornaday charged Busch after Busch had run into Hornaday's truck on the last lap of the race, sending it spinning out of control in the second turn.

"Kyle put tires on and I knew he was coming," Hornaday said. "He just drove into me. He just drove into me because he got back because I took us four wide and passed him cleanly. Halfway through the race, he showed me he was upset because he lifted the back of [my] truck up.

"I don't knock any other driver, but I will tell you what, that kid has just about done wore me out. I don't know if I have to give up this championship to teach him a lesson. I hope I don't hurt him, because if Joe Gibbs lets him do this, I am ashamed for them. I tried to talk to him as a friend. He is just out there; I don't know what it is. I guess it is an ego trip and if he is going to wreck me every week, I guess we are going to have to do it back to him.

"I was just going to let him know he drives like a ... that is about all I can say. The NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is tough drivers, tough trucks, but not 180 mph, you turn somebody sideways. He knew he had tires, he knew he was faster, one more spot. We were leading the points ... that will probably put them back in the points lead. If NASCAR doesn't penalize him and put him behind me, I don't know what to say."

Kyle Busch was cruising behind Joey Logano in Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Kentucky Speedway, just biding his time as he tried to size up the 18-year-old for the lead. But Busch lost control of his Toyota coming out of the second turn and crashed all by himself, ruining his car.

Ironically, Busch's car was sponsored by "Farm Bureau Insurance."

There goes his safe driver discount.

Ryan Newman.

This year's Daytona 500 winner is falling fast. On Sunday, a blown engine after 114 laps dropped him to 42nd place in the 43-car field.

After leaving Daytona atop the points, Newman is now 17th in points, 572 out of the lead and 123 points out of 12th place -- the final cutoff position in the Chase.

It only underlines the drastic difference between team owner Roger Penske's successful IndyCar operation with Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe compared to the NASCAR Sprint Cup team, which continues to try to match the same effort.

This has to go to Logano's first NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in only his third start. The 18-year-old driver won the pole on Saturday and trailed Kyle Busch for 85 laps of Saturday night's race before taking control and running away from the field.

Team owner Gibbs knew he had a talented driver when he signed Logano, but even "The Coach" was surprised at how quickly he found his way to victory lane.

"Yeah, I don't think anyone would have thought he would win in his third race," Gibbs said. "It's extremely hard up here. I tell everybody even though we've obviously been on a roll this year, the Nationwide Series -- we've probably spent six years and won three races. It's extremely hard to compete over there and get it done. We've had good drivers, but it's been a struggle for us, and this year we just seem to have hit it. I'm really proud of our crew chiefs and everybody over there. We're obviously happy for Joey."

Gibbs said the next step for Logano will be a few Sprint Cup races later this season.

"We would like to get him in some Cup stuff toward the end of the year," Gibbs said. "Whether we do it or not, we want to make sure he's in good stuff and doing it the right way. Our biggest thing with Joey is we knew the talent and were committed for the long haul, and we were just going to take our time, but also, he tested 32 times in different cars getting ready for this year.

"He has been in a Cup car a bunch. So every time he gets in there, he's extremely smooth and seems to handle everything real well. If we can get him in something, we'd like to by the end of this year."

With so much written about NASCAR's impending lawsuit, let's stick to disappointments on the track. This one has to go to Sam Hornish Jr., the three-time IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Hornish was having the best NASCAR Sprint Cup race of his career on Sunday and was in contention for the victory. He was in second place very late in the race before he had to pit for fuel to guarantee he could make it to the finish.

But with three laps left, Hornish lost control of his Dodge and spun out in the fourth turn. He didn't hit anything, but instead of contending for the victory or getting his first top-five finish, the driver from nearby Defiance, Ohio, had to settle for 22nd.

"It's a tough way to end the race," Hornish said. "We made a decision to take on two tires during our last pit because we were so loose the last 20 laps. Every time that I tried to touch the gas, the back-end was coming around and it almost felt like it was going down or something. It's unfortunate."

NASCAR returns to the road courses as it makes its annual trip to Sonoma, Calif., so it's an opportunity in which drivers have more input on hustling the race car around the track. That means some of the constant complaints about the new car will be silenced.

And after a one-week break, the IndyCar Series returns to action at the three-quarter-mile Iowa Speedway. With 27-28 cars battling for position on this short track, it will be a traffic jam in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.

But it will also give the rain-soaked and flooded people of Iowa a chance to get some relief. The IndyCar Series intends to do several "good deeds" to help the flood victims in their time of need.

IndyCar Series driver Tony Kanaan dropped in on his former teammate, Dario Franchitti, before Friday's Sprint Cup practice session at Michigan.

"I was around doing some appearances, and I only came for today," Kanaan said as he was off to test for Andretti Green Racing at Chicagoland Speedway Monday and Tuesday. "It's great to support him, he's my best friend, and he's been having a tough time, so I think he was happy to see me for sure."

It was the first time Kanaan had ever attended a NASCAR event.

"I was totally lost coming into the track because I've never seen this place so full in my life," Kanaan said. "I had never been to registration here in my whole life. It was a fun road trip. I drove from Indy to here by myself, which I'd never done. I always fly. I went to registration, which I had no idea what it was, and I did a few laps before I found it, and I felt like a race fan today."

Kanaan also wanted to emphasize that he came not looking for a NASCAR ride, but rather to support Franchitti, who is struggling as a NASCAR rookie this season after winning both the Indy 500 and the IndyCar Series title last season.

"No, no! We don't need that," Kanaan said. "I came here to support my friend and that's all. I'm pretty good where I'm at. I'm just feeling the vibes. But I came here only to see him, please don't even put me in trouble for that.

"I signed some autographs, which I felt pretty good about, until somebody gave me Casey Mears' picture. Some people called my name, though, which is fun. It's nice."

Jarno Trulli, who drives for Toyota's F/1 team, was on the starting grid at Michigan International Speedway Sunday, talking to Toyota NASCAR driver Kyle Busch and Chevrolet driver Jeff Gordon in the moments leading up to the race.

"Today was the first time I had ever been in another driver's garage," Trulli said. "That doesn't happen in Formula One. It is strange but it's all new. It's like looking at a new toy. It's extremely nice and challenging, very interesting. People on TV don't have a clue what is going on with technology and I look at this car and see a lot of challenge.

"The challenge in Formula One is different because the rules are different. NASCAR is a human approach. It's such a nice show and atmosphere. It's really different from what we are used to in Formula One. It's great to see so many people around as you have at a NASCAR race. The drivers here are very nice and relaxed.

"Compared to Formula One, it's another world. It's all cool here."

Trulli remains committed to Formula One and has raced in Europe for 24 years, but would like to discover more about racing in the United States one day.

"Kyle Busch has had a great season for Toyota and I wish him more success and good luck in the future," Trulli said.

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