Dale Earnhardt Jr.: 'We're getting close' to winning; Gordon agrees
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By REID SPENCER
BROOKLYN, Mich. (NASCAR) - The overwhelming consensus in the NASCAR garage is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is on the verge of winning a Sprint Cup race.
And even though his winless streak reached 143 races last Sunday at Pocono, Earnhardt hasn't tired of the questions about when he might win his next race.
"I don't feel like you guys (reporters) have asked the question too many times, because I think that if you weren't asking that kind of question, I'd be a little worried that nobody gives a dang when you're going to win," Earnhardt said.
"And then not too many people are paying attention to you or following you. So that's a good thing in a way and we'll just keep going. We're getting close and we've got speed and we've just got to put it together to win races."
Earnhardt had a car capable of winning at Pocono, but crew chief Steve Letarte made a conservative decision -- which his driver supported -- to bring Earnhardt to pit road rather than to gamble on fuel mileage. Earnhardt finished eighth and gained a spot to second in the series standings.
That race, however, showed Jeff Gordon just how close to winning his Hendrick Motorsports teammate is.
"To me, up until last week, I felt like they were a team that was just strong and consistent and doing a great job, but not really a team that showed they really had what it took to win," Gordon said Friday before Cup practice at Michigan. "Last week they showed by dominating that race that they really stepped up their game this year and have a real legitimate shot at winning races.
"And I think, in order to win the championship -- I know we say, 'Oh, you don't have to win' -- but I feel like you do kind of have to win. Somewhere throughout the season, you need to win and show that you're capable of doing that. And I think they showed me some great strides and steps last week, which I think makes them a lot more legitimate and real contenders."
FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET
Speeds at Michigan were supposed to taper off after Thursday's test session, as the track heated up and Nationwide and ARCA cars laid rubber on the racing surface.
That didn't happen. In Friday's final Cup practice, Greg Biffle made a mock qualifying run around the two-mile track in 35.172 seconds. That translates to a staggering 204.708 mph.
Biffle was at a loss to explain why speeds haven't abated. He approached his run in qualifying trim expecting to find a slicker racetrack. Instead, the driver of the No. 16 Ford found just the opposite.
"To be perfectly honest with you, after our first practice today -- going into our second -- I knew we would do all qualifying," Biffle told the NASCAR Wire Service. "I went back to my motor home, and I am soaking wet, and I took off my suit and hung it up and let it dry out. I put it back on and came back to do qualifying and I thought it was going to be a disaster, because I thought the track would be slick and we would be sliding all over.
"I thought we would be frustrated going into (qualifying on Saturday) not knowing what to expect with track conditions. That was totally not the case. It caught me off guard how fast the track was and how much grip it has right now. Quite frankly, maybe the heat -- it is pretty damn hot out there -- maybe the heat is actually providing a certain amount of that grip. That could be. Normally it works in reverse. It could be the surface and the tire combination."
All told, 14 drivers in final practice posted laps in excess of 200 mph, promising a wild qualifying session on Saturday afternoon.
SCUFFS FOR INSURANCE
The blazing speeds at Michigan also caused issues with the Cup tires for about 25 percent of the competitors. To counteract blistering of the tires, Goodyear and NASCAR agreed to make raceday tires available to teams so that drivers could scuff them in -- in other words, run minimal laps on the tires and then allow them to cool.
"I think it's just a little bit of insurance," said Greg Stucker, manager of race tire sales for Goodyear. "Everybody respects a repave, particularly at a place like this that is so fast. I think if you have the option to do things that give you that little bit more insurance on race day, I think people pursue those.
"At a repave, the racetrack itself has so much mechanical grip that you don't lose anything with a scuffed tire from a grip perspective. There's no penalty to pay, so why not go ahead and do that?"
In part, teams saw blistering because speeds were far in excess of what drivers ran during an April tire test at MIS.
"We ran about 36.4 (seconds) in our test," Stucker said. "That was our fast lap, and, honestly, we're running significantly faster than that now. Again, we knew it would be faster, but not as fast as it is. The blistering is definitely heat-related. It's aggravated by particular setups. That's why we're seeing it more predominantly on some people and not at all on others."
Mark Martin pointed out Thursday afternoon that he had blistered three left-side tires and one right side. Kevin Harvick had issues with blistering on Friday, as did Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr. and Martin, among others.
"We got with NASCAR at the end of the day (Thursday), thought the wise thing to do would be to make the race sets available to the teams, which we did before (Friday) morning's session so they could scuff tires in," Stucker said. "Obviously, putting a few laps on, putting a heat cycle in the tires toughens the tire up a just little bit and makes them a little more heat-resistant.
"We felt that was a good tool to give to the teams and let them take that option if they so chose to do that. We continued to see some blistering in this afternoon's session, so obviously we'll be sitting down with all the teams and trying to understand what they were doing at the time and try to understand what we can do to try and help the situation. The tire is comfortable. It's a good package. The racetrack is good, and we'll just try to work through that."
Updated June 15, 2012