Dale Jr’s “First” Win for Hendrick: The Story of the 2008 Lifelock 400
If you were a NASCAR fan in 2007-2008, you would have known about Dale Jr leaving his father’s race team, Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, and going into free agency. The NASCAR world was shocked by the announcement and immediately began speculating where Jr would go. Some said he would go to Richard Childress and drive the number three car; some said Joe Gibbs would take him and put him in the eighteen, and others said Rick Hendrick would be the one to snag Jr. It has been said that Jr was looking to go to Joe Gibbs at first and was contemplating sign the contract. Still, he wanted to meet with Rick Hendrick before he made any decisions. Of course, we know Jr would choose Hendrick Motorsports, and he would drive the number eighty-eight car. Hendrick had snagged the biggest free agent in NASCAR history, and immediately there were results.
Dale, technically, had two wins in his first year with Hendrick. His first win was at the Budweiser Shootout, where he was the class of the field. He had run exceptionally well for his first year at Hendrick and was poised to be a championship favorite due to his consistency. Going into Michigan, Dale sat third in points, only 145 points back of the leader of Kyle Busch (the man Jr replaced at Hendrick Motorsports). Michigan International Speedway is a two-mile, high-banked oval. In 2008, the cars would reach speeds over 210 miles per hour. Michigan is fast, broad, and strategic. Pit strategy, what groove you ran, and how good you could stretch fuel all greatly affect who would win Michigan. Qualifying would be rained out, and the cars would line up according to their points position: meaning Dale would start third. Dale would run up front for the vast majority of the race, not lead much, but he wouldn’t be far from the leaders. Cautions would be every so often, averaging 26 laps before the caution would fly. Jimmie Johnson (led 65 laps), Brian Vickers (led 44 laps), and Matt Kenseth (led 41 laps) would be the ones to dominate most of the race, with a combined 150 laps led; however, late cautions would cause the strategy to take hold.
Dale Earnhardt Jr would lead the field to the last restart with hardly any fuel. He had saved fuel on the pace laps by shutting off his engine and coasting. He hoped he had enough to make two more laps around the track. Green flag, Jr would take a commanding lead and take the white flag; however, going into turn one, the yellow flag came out due to a spin on the front stretch involving Sam Hornish Jr and Patrick Carpentier. The field is frozen when the yellow is shown, but Jr would have to make it back to the line to score the victory. He was still rolling off turn four and would cross the line and win, this time for a points race. He did not have any fuel left to do any burnouts. He just turned down pit road and went to victory lane.
Celebrations began; Jr told Matt Yocum, an ESPN pit reporter, that they did have enough fuel to make it if the caution hadn’t come out, thanking the fans and his team and wishing a Happy Father’s Day. Rick Hendrick was in victory lane and celebrated with the team. It was an awesome moment for Jr fans. Many had questioned if the Shootout win was a fluke and began wondering if he would ever win again. Michigan answered those questions. It is safe to say that the team was pleased about this win since it counted towards the championship. The rest of the regular season would be great as Dale had done well in the points, with a high of a second. Unfortunately, the Chase would not be kind to the eighty-eight team, with them finishing last in the Chase standings.