Philadelphia, PA – Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s devoted fan club, "Junior Nation," has been waiting a long time for this one. Their star is finally back in victory lane.
Earnhardt Jr. put an end to his lengthy winless drought in the Sprint Cup Series on Sunday at Michigan International Speedway. It had been 143 races, or 1,462 days, since his most recent trip to victory lane in NASCAR's premier circuit. His last win ironically came at this two-mile racetrack on June 15, 2008, his first season with Hendrick Motorsports.
When Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag for the 400-mile race at Michigan, most of the estimated crowd of 82,000 in the grandstands, as well as millions of his fans around the world, were jumping for joy. NASCAR's most popular driver at long last won again.
"I felt the fan base," said Earnhardt Jr., who claimed his 19th career Cup win. "I felt the excitement and the emotion from them almost immediately. As soon as I got out of the car, my initial thoughts were 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."
But Earnhardt Jr. admitted he was beside himself during those final laps.
"That was the worst feeling riding around there with 15 laps to go, wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose," he said.
Within the span of his four-year winless streak, Earnhardt Jr. finished in the runner-up spot seven times. He came close to victory twice during the 2011 season.
In last year's spring race at Martinsville, Kevin Harvick stole the win from Earnhardt Jr. when he passed him for the lead with just four laps remaining. Six races after Martinsville, Earnhardt Jr. led the way on the final lap at Charlotte, but he ran out of fuel on the last turn, allowing Harvick to drive past him and steal the win once again.
This time, Earnhardt Jr. was determined not to let another win slip away from him. Driving his No. 88 Chevrolet with a specially-wrapped Batman-themed paint scheme to promote the soon-to-be-released movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," Earnhardt Jr. led a race-high 95 laps and crossed the finish line 5.4 seconds ahead of defending series champion Tony Stewart.
You would think Earnhardt Jr.'s win has now made June 17 a national holiday...at least for Junior Nation.
"It's not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said. "(Sunday) morning, they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we are all in a state of mourning now, because he's broke that streak now, so I don't know what we are all supposed to think."
Earnhardt Jr. laughed in response to Stewart's notion.
"For me it is (a national holiday)," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm sure his running second to me won't be a holiday either."
One thing is for sure. Earnhardt Jr.'s win was hugely popular, and he received a lot of praise from most of his fellow competitors.
"I guess it means I'm an all-right dude," Earnhardt Jr. quipped. "When people are happy for you, they want to see you do good. That's the way I feel about people. I want to see good people do good things, and I want to see people that I think are good people have success and be happy."
His boss, Rick Hendrick, was especially thrilled with the win. Just after Earnhardt Jr. parked his car in victory lane, he received a phone call from Hendrick, who spent his Father's Day at home in North Carolina.
"I was doing laps around my couch, trying to end this race,"-+ Hendrick said during a Speed television interview shortly after the race had concluded. "'Batman' was in a hurry. I was too nervous to stand still. (Wife) Linda and I were just watching it, come on, no problems. I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen."
Last September, Earnhardt Jr. signed a five-year contract extension with Hendrick. He also made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship for the first time in three years last season.
It looks as though Earnhardt Jr. will be in the playoffs again this year. With the win, he moved to within four points of leader Matt Kenseth. Eleven races remain before the Chase begins.
After years of NASCAR reporters writing and talking about when and where Earnhardt Jr.'s next victory will come, their story has now shifted to him becoming one of the favorites to win this year's championship.
"I think they are definitely a contender," said Kenseth, who finished third at Michigan. "I think they have been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter what size or shape of racetrack. So I definitely think they are at this point in the season one of the favorites."
Does Earnhardt Jr. think he's a title contender?
"I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what-have- you, where we are, as far as being a threat to win the title," he said.
Earnhardt Jr. has scored 12 top-10 finishes in the first 15 races this season. If his momentum continues, he sure does have a good shot at winning the championship.
If that happens, his popularity will be at an all-time high.