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Murto: Junior's victory a boost for Cup

By Craig Murto - sports@nvdaily.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally ended his four-year, 143-race winless streak, and in doing so may have given NASCAR tracks a boost in ticket sales for the rest of the season.

Earnhardt led 95 of 200 laps at Michigan, the same track on which he last won a points race in NASCAR's top division. The victory ended a 115-race losing streak for crew chief Steve Letarte, and placed Earnhardt within five points of Sprint Cup point leader Matt Kenseth.

Race fans always have their favorite drivers, but usually when a fan's favorite driver drops out of a race the fan sticks around to watch the end of the event. Many fans noticed that in the '80s and '90s, if Dale Earnhardt Sr. dropped out of a race, a large portion of his fan base packed their coolers, seat cushions, etc., and went home. They didn't care about the race, they cared about Earnhardt.

When Dale Sr. died, those fans turned their attention to Dale Jr. But in the past four years, as Earnhardt Jr. remained in a slump, many speculated that the empty seats you saw around the racetracks were indicative of the Earnhardt fans finally going home for good.

If that was the case, then this victory should do a lot to generate excitement among the Earnhardt fans of old. Earnhardt Jr. has been consistently strong this season, and now that he's broken through for a win the floodgates may open.

Only a couple years ago, it seemed that Earnhardt had no confidence. And despite car owner Rick Hendrick throwing every resource he had into Earnhardt's team, nothing seemed to help. Earnhardt appeared to be a candidate for a sports psychologist, and he wouldn't be the first race driver to seek that sort of help when they've lost a competitive edge.

But 2012 has been different ... very different. Earnhardt has been comfortable at every event this season. And the results -- even before the win in Michigan -- showed that he drives with a confidence that seemed lost for good. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back, and may be a threat to win the championship this year. Expect to see many of the Earnhardt fans return to the races.

Brian Vickers' last win in Sprint Cup was at Michigan, but last weekend he was in a Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He made the highlight reel, limping his Ferrari onto pit road with a flat right front tire that caught fire. The car finished the race sixth in class.

The race was dominated by an Audi hybrid, the first hybrid racecar to win at Le Mans. Audi has dominated the race for more than a decade.

The highlight of the race was when a Toyota hybrid prototype driven by Anthony Davidson got together with a Ferrari GT entry, sending Davidson's car flipping in the air and into a guardrail, landing him in the hospital with two broken vertebrae.

Another Toyota hybrid slammed into the experimental Nissan Delta Wing car, ending the Nissan's race after six hours. The Delta Wing, an experimental project headed by American racing legend Dan Gurney, looks like the Dark Knight's Bat Mobile. There is no word on whether we'll see the experimental car in competition again.

Andy Fries competed at Winchester Speedway for the first time in 2012 on Saturday night, and became the ninth different winner in 10 Late Model races. Tim McCreadie won the World of Outlaws Late Model feature at Hagerstown, and Tyler Hughes and Davey Callihan won the NASCAR Late Model features at Old Dominion Speedway. Hughes' win was his first in a Late Model.

Manassas' Old Dominion will be the place to be on July 14 and 21. On July 14, the Super Cup Stock Car Series -- a series much like ARCA -- will visit the speedway. On July 21 the Joe Gibbs Youth for Tomorrow (YFT) 150 will run, bringing top NASCAR star drivers to compete against local and regional NASCAR competitors. All proceeds benefit the YFT foundation.

If you enjoy flat track motorcycle racing, mark Friday, July 6 on your calendar. That's when the All Star National Flat Track Series visits Winchester Speedway. Racing starts at 7 p.m., and if you've never seen flat track motorcycle racing you don't want to miss this opportunity.

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