4 years ago almost to the day was the last time we saw Dale Earnhardt Jr in Victory lane. 4 long years of self doubt and frustration washed away as he dominated the race. 4 years of fans feeling as if they had to defend their driver, all erased. A new slated has been drawn and Jr has found more confidence in his team. As he stood in victory lane he announced to the world that he is a contender for the championship and that no one should count him out just yet.
After setting the 2nd fastest time in first practice on Friday, Jr’s car was never outside the top 10 in speeds. Qualifying only 17th however had the fans a little bit nervous. Couple that with a Goodyear mandated tire change because of the newly paved surface causing possible racing issues, which threw off the balance of a lot of cars, Jr’s included and this could have been a recipe for disaster instead of a trip to victory lane. Steve Letarte, known for being an excellent cheerleader, never lost focus, and never let Jr lose focus either. They came in early on the first caution and made whole sale changes to the car to get it where Jr liked it. There was an improvement as Jr restarted 37th and drover forward through the field, but it wasn’t perfect. On the second caution Jr came in again and this time Letarte hit on something that made it work. It was a whole new ball game as Jr drove his way from 14th all the way to the front of the field, allowing him to lead the most laps (95 laps lead) and win the race.
“I know you guys have been waiting on that one,” Earnhardt radioed to his crew after crossing the finish line. “I know I have.”
Jr was glowing in victory circle, but he gave all the praise to his team, his crew chief, and to his fans who have stuck with him through all of the ups and downs since his last win, which was also right here in Michigan.
“Winning races is all you ever want,” Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. “You work real hard to get there, and I’ve got to thank [team owner] Rick Hendrick, the whole organization, really, for sticking with me.
“They could have picked another route, but they stuck with me, and we’re back in Victory Lane. I appreciate everybody’s support — Rick, the company, the fans, my team … everybody.”
“The worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go,” Earnhardt admitted. “I kept wondering what was going to happen, how you were going to lose. Those last 15 laps couldn’t go by fast enough. … I was in there, just going crazy. I’m looking all around the race track, looking for debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a big piece of metal laying in the middle of the race track.
“I was just waiting for something to happen. That was terrifying, to be honest with you. I kept thinking of Steve and the team and about how hard all of us have worked, and about how we deserved to win and how we should win — and I was hoping it would happen for everybody.”
Teammate Jimmie Johnson had high praise for Jr after the race.
“This is so great. I’m just proud of Junior. He’s been chipping away at it for a while — especially this year,” Johnson said after congratulating Earnhardt in Victory Lane. “The communication and the camaraderie between he and Stevie and throughout our shop, I should say, has been amazing. Internally, we’ve seen this coming. I’m just happy for him to get this off his back now.
“That will shut anybody up who has had anything to say. There’s only one way you really want to win — and that’s by kicking everybody’s ass. And that’s what he did today.”
And so did Jeff Gordon, another Hendrick Teammate.
“It’s amazing for the sport,” Gordon said. “You know it’s going to be everywhere. It’s going to be headlines and it’s going to get a lot of attention — as it should. I mean, he won. He did a great job, and he deserves all the credit in the world for it.”
Second place finisher, Tony Stewart, who is known for his sarcastic remarks and comments was obviously tired of answering question about Jr breaking the drought hd this to say.
“It’s no different than anybody else that does it — it’s not a national holiday, guys,” Stewart said. “This morning they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we’re all in a state of mourning now, ’cause he’s broke that string now, so I wonder what we’re all supposed to think.”
Matt Kenseth, who finished third and remains 1st in points by 4 over Earnhardt Jr, was much more gracious in his comments about his long time friend and racing adversary.
“This year you could see it going to be a matter of time,” Kenseth said. “They’ve really been the guys — that No. 88 has had a ton of speed. They haven’t always gotten the finishes [because of] circumstances, but they’ve been battling up there in the top five each and every week. They’ve finished every lap.
“I’m really happy for him to get that win. The championship part, I think they’re definitely a contender. They’ve been right up there in the mix each and every race, no matter what size or shape the race track. I think they’re definitely, at this point in the season, one of the favorites.”
Whatever you may think about Dale Earnhardt Jr, anyone can see that he has held grace under pressure the entire time since his last win. Rarely did he show his frustrations, and when he did it was obvious that he was doing his best to hold it all in. That is why his fans have stuck with him and never doubted that this day would arrive.
Next week we head to Sonoma California for the first road course of the season. Expect a different result for sure as Marcos Ambrose, after feeling his fame for being the fastest man in NASCAR after taking the pole in Michigan, returns to his element with his new found confidence.