We’ve talked all year about how Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the entire No. 88 team have been the perfect model of consistency. In my eyes, their win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway didn’t have to happen to solidify how serious he and the team are about their championship aspirations.
That said, winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup race Sunday took it to a whole new level.
Earnhardt Jr. and his team have simply had an incredible season so far. After Sunday, they have one win, 12 top-10 finishes, six top-five finishes and Dale Jr. sits only four points out of first place. Now with only 11 races until the 2012 Chase for the Sprint Cup field is set, Earnhardt Jr. has to be relieved.
Prior to Sunday, it had been four long years since he last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup points race. Sunday’s win will go a long way in silencing the naysayers and the Junior critics. He and his team have been consistent and now they are showing they are legitimate contenders. In the last two races, Dale Jr. has led 131 laps. Last year he led a total of 52 laps in the entire 36-race schedule.
It’s been well-documented that it had been four years and two days since Dale Jr. last won. Actually if you do the math, it had been 1,463 days since he won. After winning that race in 2008, he basically fell off the map for the rest of the season. I don’t see that happening this time. The team is too consistent and just too good right now to let that happen.
I, like a lot of others, feel the win Sunday at Michigan might be the springboard for a lot more wins before the season is over. Earnhardt Jr. and his Hendrick Motorsports team are running incredibly well and we just might see an outbreak of wins. I think the key in all this is crew chief Steve Letarte. He has been a part of championships and also the key in a lot of wins by Jeff Gordon.
I think he can keep himself, the race team and most importantly his driver, Dale Jr., grounded and not let them slack off. This weekend is going to be a huge test for them. Dale Jr. has made it known for years that he doesn’t like road-course racing and struggles with that type of driving. Sonoma has never been one of his stronger places to race, obviously.
Now that doesn’t mean he and his team can’t go out there Sunday and get a solid race and top finish under their belt and move on. We saw Sunday how, when things weren’t good, they didn’t panic and just focused on making the car better. It’s those little signs that show me they are where they need to be. They know they can’t sit still and have to keep moving forward.
They know very well the Jimmie Johnsons, Tony Stewarts and Matt Kenseths of the Cup world are not sitting still, so they can’t either. Earnhardt Jr. and his team have it all going their way right now. They are leading laps. They now have won their first race of the year. They are finishing in the top five or, when that isn’t possible, they are still pulling out top-10 finishes. That type of performance will win you a championship.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the best frame of mind I have seen him in years. The biggest thing he has going for him is what every driver needs – confidence. He has confidence again in himself. He believes in his race team and those guys and gals believe in him. They are just the real deal right now.
Obviously this was a very popular win for Junior Nation and for our sport. When the most popular driver in maybe all of motorsports breaks a four-year dry spell and celebrates in Victory Lane, well it is just pretty big.
I am very thrilled for Steve Letarte. He ended a 115-race winless streak himself. He is an awesome person. He is the perfect person who supports his team and his driver. He has done something that others weren’t able to do and that’s get NASCAR's most favorite son back to Victory Lane.