RICHMOND, VA. The turnaround is complete, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in Victory Lane for the first time in 2006.
Coming off the worst season of his career, Earnhardt snapped a 27-race winless streak Saturday night at Richmond International Speedway. The victory proved just how far his team has come since missing out on the Chase for the championship last year.
"I think we are there," he said. "We keep taking our shots, but we're pretty competitive. Everything is working really great. I couldn't ask for any position on this team to be any better.
"I'm just glad to be back in Victory Lane. It feels really great."
Long overdue for a victory, he celebrated it with perfect doughnuts along the frontstetch, spinning his No. 8 Chevrolet until it was engulfed in thick, white smoke and his tire had exploded.
Earnhardt won last July in Chicago - his only victory of 2005 - but backed into the win because of fuel strategy. It was the lone highlight in a season of turmoil: He finished 19th in the final standings and was never a contender.
Now he has a victory, and it moved him up two spots in the standings to sixth. He trails leader Jimmie Johnson by 216 points.
Denny Hamlin, driving with his hand heavily bandaged after he needed 19 stitches to close a gash on his hand, finished second. Kevin Harvick, who dominated the race and led 272 of the 400 laps, was third and extremely disappointed with the finish.
"Just got tight," he said. Harvick won Friday night's Busch Series race and had been looking for his second weekend sweep of the season.
But Hamlin, Earnhardt and Kyle Busch all got in his way. All three had gotten by Harvick late in the race, and Busch was out front after taking the lead following pit stops. But Busch couldn't hold off Earnhardt and Hamlin, who raced their way past him with 44 laps to go.