When the checkered flag waved at Michigan Motor Speedway on Sunday, the 4-year wait was over. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had finally earned his much-anticipated 19th trip to Victory Lane, and the fans were nothing short of ecstatic.
Tony Stewart drove his #14 car into second place 5 seconds behind the #88. “It’s not like it’s a national holiday, guys,” Stewart said of the racing world’s reaction to the win.
But if you’re part of Junior Nation, you know today was the equivalent of Christmas morning.
It was almost exactly four years since Earnhardt’s last trip to Victory Lane, which happened to be at Michigan in 2008. In the 143 races since, Junior came close, placing in the Top 5 in 5 out of 15 Sprint Cup races this season alone.
But it was not until Father’s Day 2012 that the son of the legendary #3 could clinch the win at last. Junior led 95 out of the 200 laps in Sunday’s race and held on to finish the race far ahead of the field.
Earnhardt was speechless. “I don’t know what to say,” Junior radioed his crew chief, Steve Letarte, after crossing the start/finish line.
“We really won it,” Letarte radioed back.
Meanwhile, the fans were not quite as quiet about the checkered flag for the #88, chanting Junior’s name and screaming triumphantly. Upon exiting his car, Earnhardt said his first thought was to thank those cheering both in the grandstands and from the couch. “They stuck behind me for all these years,” he said. “I appreciate their loyalty.”
That loyalty might just pay off for Junior Nation this year. NASCAR’s most popular driver is now sitting in second in the Sprint Cup Standings, only 4 points behind Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth. In addition to locking him into next year’s All-Star Race, the win gives him bonus points heading into the Chase for the Cup. “They are definitely a contender,” said Kenseth of the #88 team post-race.
Besides the obvious boost in points, the win could give Earnhardt’s team an arguably more important enhancer: confidence. “It feels great to win,” Junior said. “I’ll enjoy it, and then in a day or two I’ll be thirsty for the next one.”
Until then, Earnhardt, the #88 team, and all of NASCAR – save maybe Tony Stewart – will revel in the holiday of a Dale Jr. win at last.
TORI ANSWERS: What does Earnhardt’s win mean for the sport?
A win for Junior Nation is a win for the world of racing. Even folks who don’t know racing recognize the Earnhardt name, and the long-awaited victory will get NASCAR the exposure it very well deserves. As if that was not enough, the timing was the definition of perfection. The Father’s Day win for NASCAR’s most famous son on the 4-year anniversary of his last victory is a fairy-tale story that every sports fan can respect. The only NASCAR news that could rival the popularity of a win from Dale would be a win from Danica.