It was only a matter of timePublished 5:16pm Monday, June 18, 2012
BROOKLYN — It was only a matter of time.
It didn’t take Nostradamus to predict that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to start winning races this season. It was just a matter of when and where.
The when was Sunday and the where was Michigan International Speedway.
There was not a more fitting place for Earnhardt Jr.’s four-year, 143-race losing streak to come to an end. After all, it was MIS where Junior last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race back in 2008.
I have been saying for a couple of weeks now that Earnhardt Jr. was going to get back into victory lane. You could see this one coming from a mile away. He had just missed at a couple of races earlier this year and probably had the car to beat last week in Pocono when he and his crew decided to play it safe and make a late race pit stop.
But there was no denying Earnhardt on Father’s Day in the Irish Hills of Michigan. It was Father’s Day in 2008 when he last steered the No. 88 National Guard Chevy into the Gatorade Victory Lane.
I was hoping that if he won the race, or any race for that matter, it wouldn’t be on fuel mileage or due to weather.
Neither of those issues played a factor in the Quicken Loans 400 win. He dominated the race, leading 95 of the 200 laps around the newly paves MIS oval. His performance was so dominating that he finished more than five seconds ahead of runner-up Tony Stewart.
There has been a difference with Earnhardt Jr. this year. He seems more comfortable with who he is and with his team at Hendrick Motorsports. He has opened up a bit and is letting people get to know him away from the track — something that really didn’t happen before last fall.
Earnhardt’s comfort level has translated into a ton of confidence and many now feel like he is the driver to beat for the Sprint Cup championship.
You could feel both his pride and his confidence when he strolled into the media center at MIS to face reporters following Sunday’s victory.
“I feel like we are getting stronger,” he said. “This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, especially these last couple of weeks. So that’s been a thrill for me.”
It was also interesting to listen to him talk about sitting in the car as the final laps were ticking down and wondering what might go wrong.
You can hardly blame him. It seems like he has been in this position several times over the past two years and he has come away empty-handed.
“I was in there just going crazy,” he said. “I just know I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I just was waiting on something to happen. That was terrifying.”
What ought to be terrifying is the fact that the lid is off now and I full expect Earnhardt to return to victory lane several more times before the season ends. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see him content and win the Sprint Cup championship this season.
All is right in the world of NASCAR and Junior Nation this fine day. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.
Scott Novak is sports editor of Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.