Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Throwback Thursday Theater – The Dark Knight Rises at Michigan

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

Entering the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan in June 2012, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had gone four long years since his last trip to victory lane, which came in the same race on Father’s Day in 2008. With the weight of the world on his shoulders and his rabid fan base willing him to victory, Earnhardt silenced the doubters with a dominating win on the two-mile oval.

With a freshly repaved track greeting the drivers as they arrived at Michigan, speeds immediately began to skyrocket on the new asphalt, leading all 43 cars entered to break the track record in the first day of testing. In qualifying, Marcos Ambrose would demolish the track qualifying record with a lap of 35.426 seconds, 203.241 mph to score his first career pole, while Earnhardt qualified back in 17th.

As a result of the higher speeds, the tires began to show signs of blistering, which gave NASCAR and Goodyear some concerns. In order to alleviate those concerns, a new harder compound tire was brought in for the race.

Though a drenching rainstorm enveloped the track on race morning and pushed the start of the race back by a couple of hours, the track was eventually dried and the field lined up for the green under sunny skies later in the afternoon.

Ambrose, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth would combine to lead all but one of the first 69 laps of the race, but by lap 70, Earnhardt and his special Batman paint scheme promoting “The Dark Knight Rises” was hot on their heels for the race lead.

Heading down the backstretch, Earnhardt pulled alongside Ambrose for the lead and cleared him into Turn 3, taking over the point for the first of many laps at the front of the field.

Earnhardt would lead the next 13 laps before caution came out for debris and Tony Stewart was able to take over the top spot on the ensuing restart. However, Stewart’s lead would only last 18 laps before Earnhardt powered right back by him to re-take the lead at lap 105.

Despite losing the lead during green flag pit stops at lap 118 and a caution that came out shortly thereafter, Earnhardt wouldn’t take long to find himself right back in command of the race on a lap 126 restart thanks to a push from Juan Pablo Montoya.

Photo: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR

The final two cautions of the day would come out on lap 127 and 134, respectively. The lap 127 caution came as a result of Joey Logano, then in his fourth season with Joe Gibbs Racing, breaking loose off of Turn 2 and collecting David Gilliland and Kasey Kahne in the process. The final caution on lap 134 happened as Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin got together in Turn 4, sending Hamlin for a spin through the infield grass and damaging the front end of his car. Things got a little crazier as Hamlin drove down pit road after the crash as his Toyota would burst into flames. He would be able to get his car stopped near the safety crews before bailing out uninjured.

Meanwhile, it was still all Earnhardt up front as he only gave up the lead during green flag pit stops between laps 163 and 170, leading 67 of the final 75 laps en route to breaking a 143-race winless streak dating back to 2008.

Tony Stewart would finish second, 5.393 seconds behind Earnhardt when the checkered flag flew, followed by Kenseth, Biffle, and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top-five.

“I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, this was the worst — that’s the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go wondering what’s going to happen or how you were going to lose (laughing),” said Earnhardt.

“I was just thinking, man, those laps could not go by fast enough.  I was like — I’ve got a big lead, I’m going to take it easy — no, I want to run it hard, get it over with.  So I was just in there going crazy, thinking — and I’m looking all around the racetrack hoping there’s no debris around the next corner.  I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack.  I was just waiting on something to happen.  So that was terrifying to be honest with you.”

“I kept thinking about Steve and the team and how hard we have worked and how we deserved to win, and how we should win, and was hoping it would happen for everybody.  You know, that was — but that race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, and today we just whooped them really good.  So that felt good.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.