THE DARK KNIGHT RISES
It had been 143 races since arguably the most popular driver in the history of NASCAR had been to victory lane.
It had been 4 calendar years since auto racing’s premier cash cow had been to victory lane.
And yet, somehow, you have to believe that the final 15 laps of Sunday’s race at Michigan were more nerve racking than ALL of that.
“That was the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go, wondering what was going to happen — how you were going to lose,” Earnhardt said. “Those laps couldn’t go by fast enough.”
For the past 4 years, anything that could potentially go wrong with Earnhardt and the 88 team, did. And in often spectacular fashion.
Last year at Martinsville, Junior found himself up front, 9 laps from a victroy that had long eluded him. Kevin Harvick put a good ol’ fashioned stock car bump and run on him, and went on to victory.
At last season’s longest race, the Coca Cola 600, Junior found himself a mere turn away from ending his enormous winless streak in his home state, at one of NASCAR’s premier events. He ran out of gas. I don’t even remember WHO went on to win that race. I don’t think that anybody who isn’t a friend, fan, or family member of the driver who went on to Victory Lane that day does either. All that I, the media, Junior, the members of the 88 team, or any other member of Jr. Nation can remember is that Junior was close enough to the checkered flag to smell it. Close enough to Victory Lane to taste the champagne that was certainly waiting on ice. Close enough to removing an elephant sized weight made ever heavier by the pressure put on him by his rabid fans, the media, the sport that needs him to be successful more than any other, and most importantly, himself from his shoulders. And as per usual during the 143 race winless streak, it did NOT happen.
26 different Sprint Cup series drivers had won a race since Junior’s last victory.
Junior’s 143 race winless streak was the 6th longest of any driver in NASCAR history.
8 drivers recorded their very first victory during that 4 year span.
Teammate Jimmie Johnson recorded an astonishing 23 wins in that time.
Junior finished second, 7 times during that 143 race stretch.
That 143 race winless streak came to a defiant END on Sunday afternoon at Michigan, the same track Junior had recorded his last win at.
All of those numbers that I spun off for the handful of you reading this post, no longer matter.
After Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s stunning and more importantly, DOMINANT 19th career victory at Michigan on Sunday in which he lead for 95 laps and defeated 2nd place Tony Stewart by a whopping 5.4 seconds, the only thing that matters to Junior and his nation of adoring fans is the NEXT race. The NEXT dominant performance. The NEXT win. And most importantly that elusive and all important first career Sprint Cup series championship that he suddenly appears closer to than ever.