Having gone four years without a victory, you'd have expected Dale Earnhardt Jr. to go a little nuts when he crossed the finish line first Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.
Instead, Junior calmly said over his radio, "I don't know what to say," then asked his crew chief Steve Letarte if, in fact, he'd really won. Letarte confirmed he had and, well, Junior was relieved.
Oh, there will celebrations across Junior Nation now that their driver's 143-race losing streak is over – "National holiday tomorrow," Tony Stewart said as Junior took the checkered flag – but just as he's done throughout these four long years, Junior won't get caught up in it. When he hopped out of his car, he immediately thanked his fans – "They stuck behind me for all these years. I appreciate their loyalty," he said – but going crazy over one victory isn't in his blood, not when his daddy won so many races and a championship is still the ultimate goal.
So as he celebrated in victory lane, Junior did so as if he'd been there the day before, and the day before that and the day before that, even if he hadn't been there since June 15, 2008.
"Winning races is all you ever want," Earnhardt said. "You work real hard to get there. I have got to thank [team owner] Rick Hendrick and the whole organization really for sticking with me. They could have taken another route, but they stuck with me, and we are back to victory lane."
This season has been a revival of sorts for NASCAR's most popular (and therefore most scrutinized) driver. He's been near the top of the standings all year, has finished every single lap of every single race, has 12 top-10 finishes in 15 tries and now this, a victory to end what's become the sport's most eternal question: When will Dale Jr. win again?
Ironically, this win came on the same track (Michigan) as his last one, which came in his first season with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. At that time, Junior was on a roll and it appeared things would only be looking up for him and his decision to join NASCAR's premier organization. Only it didn't turn out that way.
The win in 2008 would be the high point of his season, as he slipped into the shadow of his more formative teammates, namely Jimmie Johnson. Junior had always battled with the critics who complained that his popularity didn't match his talent, and that was only emphasized with him sharing garage space with a guy who was in the midst of the greatest winning streak the sport has ever seen.
Johnson winning five straight championships may have been great for the organization, but it served as fuel to the fire for Junior haters, whose "overrated" screams became louder as Earnhardt's winless streak mounted.
The truth is Junior isn't nor has ever been overrated. If anything, the critics' complaints that he is a crappy driver is misdirected anger aimed not at Earnhardt, but rather at preserving his father's legend.
Junior will be the first to acknowledge that he isn't his father and that he owes his popularity almost entirely to his dad. Sure, he has more fans than he otherwise would, but he was still an 18-time winner throughout the entire losing streak, a number that puts him in the Hall of Fame conversation.
Win No. 19 came in absolutely dominating fashion, which it had to in order for the critics not to scream foul, something they do with regularity. Junior started 17th, fell way back early, but after an adjustment on the first pit stop it was clear he and his car were the class of the field. By Lap 70 he was at the front, a lead he would only relinquish briefly over the rest of the 130 laps.
He wound up leading 95 laps, more than twice as many as anyone else, and cruised to a more than 5-second victory over Tony Stewart, who could only watch the 88 drive away.
"I don't know what it means for him personally to get that win but I know that even if he acts like it's not, it's probably a burden having all your fans talking about you and writing stuff about you not winning," said Matt Kenseth, who wound up third. "But this year, you could see it was going to be a matter of time. Really they have been the guys all year."
Now the talk can shift from when will Junior finally win a race to can he win a championship. The victory moved him to within four points of Kenseth, the current points leader.
"He's just switched on," Hendrick said. "He's got the confidence, Stevie has got the touch and every week they're the best by far. I think he's sitting in the cat bird seat to win his first championship."
Shake one monkey off your back and another quickly climbs on. So is life when you're Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s son.
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