That loud sound you heard on Father’s Day this year? That was the sound of the Earnhardt Nation spontaneously erupting in joy when Dale Earnhardt Jr. broke a 143-race winless streak to capture the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
And for Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte, the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, and Earnhardt’s millions of fans, it didn’t come a moment too soon.
Oh, Earnhardt had had plenty of good runs up until then, finishing second in the Daytona 500 and at Richmond, and third at both Auto Club Speedway and Martinsville. Most famously, while leading the 2011 Coca-Cola 600, he ran out of gas in the final turn of the last lap with victory less than half a mile away.
But up until the Quicken Loans 400, Earnhardt hadn’t won a race since Michigan in 2008, an agonizingly long stretch of time.
This time around, though, it all came together, as Earnhardt led 95 of 200 laps, including the final 30m to take the checkered flag by a whopping 5.39 seconds over Tony Stewart, with Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top five. And, oh by the way, Earnhardt was driving a black car, with a special Batman-themed “The Dark Knight Rises” paint scheme.
To win the race, Earnhardt and Letarte had to overcome a pair of obstacles: A last-minute tire change call by NASCAR to slow the cars down after Marcos Ambrose won the pole with a lap of 203.241 miles per hour — the old track record was 194.232 mph — and heavy rains that delayed the start of the race by about two hours and washed all the rubber off the freshly repaved track.
Still, Earnhardt was able to score a dominating victory and afterwards expressed the gratitude for the continued support of his fans.
“They wanted to know why we weren't competitive and they wondered what was missing, but they never doubted me and they never gave you up,” said Earnhardt. “So I know there was a lot of people that were happy today. I could tell — I felt the fan base. I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately, almost immediately. As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do.”
For Letarte, his faith in his driver was rewarded.
“We have had bad runs, good runs, disagreements, agreements, but from the day we started working together, I hope he's never questioned my desire to improve the team and to run well and I never have questioned his desire and where he stands as far as the team and what our goals are when we came in here,” said Letarte.
As for car owner Rick Hendrick, the victory was a huge deal, too.
“I think that has bothered him more than anything else, that his fan base, he didn't feel like he was getting it done for them,” Hendrick said of Earnhardt. “I think now that's got him pumped up. He's very confident. I mean, our guys said they were still partying when the trucks left Michigan. I think you'll see it at these races, when he's introduced, he takes the lead again, you'll see his fan base on their feet. It's good for the sport. It's good for him. I think it helps everybody.”
Top 10 Races of 2012:
9. GEICO 400, Chicagoland Speedway, Sept. 16
10. AAA Texas 500, Texas Motor Speedway, Nov. 4
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100.