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Michigan Memories Aplenty For Jr.

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. signs autographs in the garage before practice for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters his car for qualifying for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Brooklyn, Mich., Friday, Aug. 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

  • Jimmie Johnson drives his car to the garage after hitting the wall during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series auto race in Brooklyn, Mich., Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)



Sunday, August 13, 2017

Brooklyn, Mich. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. was racing for the win in a 1999 IROC event at Michigan.

Problem was, his opponent was in no mood to let him pass.

“Dad drove to the bottom so I just went around a little bit higher and it stuck, and I got along his outside,” the younger Earnhardt recalled. “I was going by, and he hit me.”

Dale Earnhardt won that race over Earnhardt Jr. by 0.007 seconds on one of many memorable days at Michigan International Speedway for Earnhardt Jr., whose farewell tour is passing through the track this weekend. Earnhardt Jr. would go on to win Cup races at MIS in 2008 and 2012, and he’ll try to add another victory today in his final race at the venue before he retires at the end of this season.

Those wins in ’08 and ’12 were Earnhardt Jr.’s only Cup victories from 2007-13. The latter snapped a 143-race losing streak. But his memories at Michigan extend further back than that.

The exciting IROC finish in ’99 included some contact between Earnhardt Jr.’s car and his father’s — a fun story line if there ever was one. Later that year, Junior pulled away from Jeff Gordon — who was at that point the two-time defending Cup champion — for a win in a Busch Series race at Michigan.

“It seemed like only me and him were racing each other for the win. I was very proud of that, because I thought he was the best in the sport at the time,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was like beating Jimmie Johnson if he came down to the Xfinity Series. So that was a big deal for us.”

By 2012, Earnhardt Jr. was no longer an up-and-comer in his mid-20s. His victory at the 2-mile Michigan track that year ended his long drought. He’d go on to win four more Cup races in 2014 and three in 2015.

Earnhardt Jr. is winless over the past two seasons, and he has only four top-10 finishes this year. Over the past week, he has been involved in a bit of a back-and-forth with Kevin Harvick, who suggested Junior’s inability to achieve more success has hindered the sport’s growth.

But Earnhardt Jr. has been plenty competitive in Michigan over the years. In fact, only two active drivers — Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth — have more Cup wins at MIS.

More things to watch in today’s race:

Going For Three: Kyle Larson is trying for a third straight Cup win at Michigan after victories this June and last August. He’ll be in the spotlight Sunday after team owner Chip Ganassi gave him permission to go to Iowa on Saturday to race in the Knoxville Nationals.

Hendrick Problems: Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Kasey Kahne both are on to backup cars after going into the wall during practice Saturday. Johnson also had to go to the backup car in June at Michigan after a practice mishap.

“You have to run so hard here that if the car slips it’s around and gone,” Johnson said. “I ran a half a second faster today in practice than I did in qualifying yesterday. So, with the grill open and tires on low pressure and all that, especially these morning sessions with overcast clouds you just run so hard that when something happens, it’s gone.”

Qualifying Sweep: Ford vs. Chevrolet is always a matchup to watch in Michigan. Larson won for Chevy in June, but Ford swept the top three spots in qualifying Friday, with Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano going 1-2. Harvick was third.