Earnhardt happy after cracking top 10 at Michigan

Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t ready to say he’s back. Not by a long

shot.

Yet after posting his best finish in nearly three months by

surging to seventh at Michigan on Sunday, NASCAR’s most popular –

and sometimes most sullen – driver sounded downright giddy.

“We were able to be competitive at the end of the race,”

Earnhardt said.

That hasn’t been the case too often during this frustrating

season for Earnhardt. He began the year by finishing runner-up to

Jamie McMurray at Daytona but has struggled finding any sort of

consistency in the ensuing weeks. His performance at the two-mile

oval was his highest finish since running seventh at Bristol in

March.

Even better, he managed to beat cars he felt were better than

his No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt outdueled Jeff Burton over the

final laps by laying hard on the wheel and going low.

“I felt like I could hold my own on the bottom in (Turns) 1 and

2 and run around the middle in 3 and 4 and my momentum would keep

me ahead of him and it worked,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt moved up to 14th in the points race with 11 races to

go before the 12-driver cutoff for the Chase. He trails 12th-place

Mark Martin by 81 points heading into next week’s trip to the road

course at Sonoma.

There’s plenty of time to make up ground, and on the two-year

anniversary of his last win, Earnhardt was quick to praise crew

chief Lance McGrew. McGrew called Earnhardt to the pits when a late

caution came out. The crew slapped on new tires, giving Earnhardt

enough grip to climb into the top 10.

“Lance and the guys unloaded a good car and it stayed good all

weekend,” he said. “We had a good call at the end to get four

tires. That worked out for us, got a couple more spots. We had

about a 10th-place car today.”

—-

WHERE’S TOM: Two days after Kevin Harvick scolded Tom Logano for

being too involved in son Joey’s racing career, the elder Logano

was noticeably absent on Sunday.

Instead, it was Joey’s mother Debbie who watched her son work

his way to a 10th-place finish. Debbie also tagged along for

Logano’s victory in Saturday night’s Nationwide race at

Kentucky.

Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs said Tom Logano simply

“didn’t want to be the center of attention” and that’s why he

chose to take a rare weekend off.

Tom Logano has been a fixture in the garage since his son broke

into the Cup series two years ago but drew heavy criticism from

Harvick for his actions during a postrace scrap last week at

Pocono. Joey Logano charged Harvick’s pit stall after Harvick

knocked Logano out of contention late in the race.

Harvick chastised Tom Logano for prodding his son into the

scuffle. NASCAR officials summoned Tom Logano to the hauler after

the race but he was not officially disciplined.

His absence didn’t seem to bother his son, who deftly moved

around Harvick early in the race.

—-

FORD TOUGH: The new FR9 engine used by Roush Fenway Racing and

Richard Petty Motorsports drew raves after five drivers using the

Ford-based motor finished in the top 14.

Kasey Kahne led the charge, matching Matt Kenseth’s second-place

finish in Atlanta as the best performance by a Ford car all season.

Greg Biffle was ninth, AJ Allmendinger 11th, Carl Edwards 12th and

Kenseth 14th.

“The FR9 is so fast,” Allmendinger said. “It’s good to come

off the corner and get a good run and just blow by guys.”

Biffle said “the power is there” but handling continues to be

a problem.

“If we do that, we should be able to get things figured out,”

he said.

A Ford car hasn’t won since Jamie McMurray won at Talladega last

fall.

—-

WAIT ‘TIL 2012?: Kentucky Speedway’s long wait to get a coveted

Cup race is likely going to extend until at least 2012.

Track owner Bruton Smith said before Saturday’s Nationwide race

at the 1.5-mile tri-oval that he hasn’t asked NASCAR to move a Cup

date to the track in 2011.

While Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. purchased the track

in late 2008 from the original ownership group, won’t rule out the

possibility of finally bringing a Cup race to the Bluegrass, he’s

not planning on it.

“There are so many things that would have to be done to get to

that point,” he said.

It’s highly unlikely NASCAR would choose to assign the track a

Cup date following a lengthy legal battle with the original owners,

who filed an antitrust lawsuit against NASCAR and International

Speedway Corp., in 2005 claiming they conspired to keep the track

from getting a Cup race.

Both the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals

rejected the claims. Last month the original owners opted not to

ask the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case.

Smith has maintained the lawsuit has long been an obstacle to

getting a Cup race. He could move one of the races at his other SMI

tracks to Kentucky, but has remained coy about which track would

lose a Cup date.

There are already plans to expand the track by 50,000 seats to

accommodate a Cup race. About 61,000 turned out on Saturday night

to see Joey Logano edge Carl Edwards for his third straight

Nationwide race at the speedway.

—-

ALMIROLA READY: Jimmie Johnson’s entourage grew by one on

Sunday.

Johnson’s crew was joined by part-time Cup driver Aric Almirola,

who will be the emergency fill in for Johnson if Johnson’s wife

Chandra goes into labor during a race. She’s due with the couple’s

first child in July.

Almirola, who won Saturday’s Truck race, said he’s just hoping

to get a feel for how the No. 48 team works. He has no plans to

head to Sonoma next weekend, but will be on call through the July

10 race in Chicago.

—-

STAR GAZING: Actors Kevin James and Adam Sandler, who were

promoting their upcoming movie “Grown Ups,” served as grand

marshals for the race.

Sandler who has played roles as a football player and a golfer

was asked if he has plans for a movie about auto racing.

“Will Ferrell beat me to the punch on that one,” Sandler said.

“We’d like to. We like speed.”

Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom served as the

honorary pace car driver and Ndamukong Suh, the Detroit Lions’

first-round draft pick this year from Nebraska, was an honorary

official for the race.

Suh attended the Indianapolis 500 last month.

“I had a blast at Indy. This is NASCAR, so I’m trying to figure

out what the difference is,” said Suh, who nonetheless recognizes

where his bread is buttered. The Lions are owned by the Ford

family. “I’m happy as long as a Ford car wins.”