SPEED ON-AIR PERSONALITIES REACT TO EARNHARDT JR.’S BREAKTHROUGH WIN
The lengthy wait and perpetual debate are over … Dale Earnhardt Jr. found his way back to Victory Lane Sunday at Michigan to snap a 143-race winless streak that dated back four years to the same weekend at the same track.
Below, SPEED on-air personalities discuss the significance of his breakthrough win and the long road that led to it:
“This is a classic example of a team putting itself in position to win over the past year or two. Sure, the long-awaited victory is important, especially to Junior Nation, but the more important measure of the No. 88 team is its improvement in average finish position and points standing during that time. Those yardsticks tell me the wins will keep coming.
“As big as this is for Junior and Junior Nation, I think it's even bigger for Rick Hendrick. For a long time his five-year deal with NASCAR's biggest star wasn't looking very smart. But he remained committed in the face of the naysayers, to the point of handing over to Junior the 24 car and team. That substantial gamble is now paying off, once again making Hendrick look like the smartest guy in the room.” --Dave Despain, host of Wind Tunnel on SPEED
“I talked to Steve Letarte at Eldora and he said he had never seen a driver give more than Dale Jr. has given this year. Dale Jr. has done everything Steve has asked him to do. He asked him to work out and get in better shape – he did. He asked him to give better feedback on the car and he did. I have never seen Dale Jr. as focused as he has been this year. He shows up ready to race and runs well every week. I think the floodgates will open and this win will get that monkey off his back. He’ll get that swagger back and get that cap turned around backwards, and his fellow competitors better look out.
“He has come so far personally, as well. When he was new to the Nationwide Series, he acted like a kid for a long time, but over the last couple of years, I’ve seen a young man who really has focused on trying to be a winner and focused on trying to win a championship. I think he’s like all athletes – we know we only have so much time at the top of our game, and maybe that’s a little bit of motivation for him. We all know those opportunities to win championships and races don’t last forever, so I think he’s really trying to take advantage of where he is now.” --Darrell Waltrip, SPEED analyst
“What happened today is something you dream about -- for a man to come back to the same track four years after his last victory, endure that long of a winless drought and put it in the record books with such an exclamation point of dominance is amazing. Dale Junior has not only won a race but once again has won the hearts of the race fans. That was a dominating performance, but the saddest part about it is that the man who believed so much in him, Rick Hendrick, went all the way to Michigan, and because of bad weather, went back to Charlotte and was watching it on TV.” --Jeff Hammond, SPEED analyst
“Dale Jr.’s win is huge, not just for him but for all parties involved -- Dale Jr., Hendrick Motorsports and the Dale Jr. fans. Five years ago, Dale Jr. made the biggest move of his life when he announced he was leaving the family company to move to the most renowned team in NASCAR. But that match made in heaven didn’t really go anywhere. However, Junior Nation never abandoned ship on their driver, so this is huge for them. I haven’t met a Dale Jr. fan yet who lost faith in him. This win also is important for Hendrick Motorsports because, to some degree, Rick Hendrick and the team have felt like they’d let their driver down because they couldn’t put him in Victory Lane the second time. I think it’s safe to say this is one of the most popular wins in a long, long time, and I doubt you’ll find anyone who wasn’t happy to see Dale Jr. take that checkered flag.” --Larry McReynolds, SPEED analyst
“Dale Earnhardt, Jr. has been in position to win this entire season. Coming into the Michigan race, he had scored more top-10 finishes than any other driver and completed 100% of his laps. Today he and his team were flawless. I think they'll win again, and this win further solidifies his status as a championship contender. I was quite impressed by his reaction in Victory Lane. He hasn't won in four years, but he has won nearly 20 Cup races in his career, and his behavior reflected that. Dale and the 88 team are for real. I'm happy for them. Now they can focus on winning that championship this year.” --Steve Byrnes, host of NASCAR Race Hub
“All is right in the world again. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is back in Victory Lane in NASCAR. What makes this so right is he didn’t do it in an odd way or by fluke. He didn’t win on fuel mileage or daring pit strategy. Junior earned this win fair and square. He’s been consistent this season with more top-10 finishes than anyone. He’s still got a lot to do to continue to be a championship contender, but he has worked his way back to Victory Lane in Cup competition, and that’s a great starting point.” --Bob Dillner, SPEED reporter
“It’s been a long four years for Junior Nation. I am happy for his fans and NASCAR. Now, let’s celebrate this win and help our sport grow. I have thought that ever since we took all our eyes and undivided attention off of Dale Jr. and gave him some breathing room, he was able to be more himself and relax a bit. Some of that pressure left him. Today we just saw the ‘Old Dale Jr.,’ the one we’ve been looking for, for a long time. He is back.” --Kenny Wallace, SPEED analyst and NASCAR Nationwide Series driver
“This win validates all the reasons Dale Earnhardt, Jr. went to Hendrick Motorsports in the first place. He left DEI for Hendrick so he could be in the best equipment and position himself to win. But one win at Hendrick isn’t good enough because that organization has such a pedigree of winning, so today’s win really solidifies Dale Jr. as part of the Hendrick fold. But there are so many more dynamics at work here that people might forget about. Not only does Rick Hendrick mentor Dale Jr. as an owner – he also has taken Dale Jr. under his wing since his father died in 2001. Rick is a major player in Dale’s life on a much larger scale than a driver/owner relationship. Rick has filled a void, to some degree, for Dale Jr., and the dynamic in play there is much greater than winning. It’s about the bigger picture and a lifelong mentorship.” --Matt Clark, “NASCAR Insider” on NASCAR Race Huband former Hendrick Motorsports pit crew coach