One of the worst things a racer, or an athlete in general, can experience is a drought. Going week after week without success, or victory, can weigh on someone’s mind. That can flow into a team, a coach or an organization, like a landslide or avalanche.
But, once success is achieved, things turn around quickly, and the hope of making it to the highest honor feels more reachable.
That can certainly be the case for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team. When he opted to leave the family team and join Hendrick Motorsports for the 2008 season, expectations were through the roof. But, despite winning the Bud Shootout and the Gatorade Duel to start out the season, he would only achieve one victory all season.
Then through 2009, no wins, but a lot of frustration. The same happened in 2010, and things were looking extremely dismal. Even a crew chief change didn’t seem to help. Then, the decision to put him with former crew chief for teammate Jeff Gordon, Steve Letarte, seemed to spark something. The confidence in the team went up, the confidence in himself went up, and it began showing in the results.
Sure, 2011 would be another winless season for the most popular driver in NASCAR, but things began looking up.
Then came 2012. Through 14 races, Junior was second in the standings, finishing in the top-five and top-10 consistently each week, and completed every single lap ran on the season, the only driver to do so.
Finally, Sunday’s race at Michigan was the last hurdle the team needed to get over.
Last week at Pocono, Junior had the fastest car in the race, and everyone knew it. The late pit call doomed him because of some cautions. But, he never lost confidence, and turned his focus to the next race, the same track where he got his last win. Everyone was looking at the Hendrick Motorsports bunch to be fast, and they were right. Even with the tire change on Saturday due to some odd wear patterns, the team looked good.
The handling didn’t start out well for the No. 88, but one pit call changed all that. One spring rubber in the left-rear suspension turned the Diet Mtn. Dew/Batman-The Dark Knight Rises Chevrolet turned it into a black rocket. He made his way to the front early, and at that point things changed.
Each pit stop saw the car get better, and the driver pushing to the front. After the final fill-up for fuel, Junior saw his lead over second-place Tony Stewart start out at 1.5 seconds. But each lap, the gap widened…and widened, and widened to the point where the only thing that could stop him from winning was a caution and a restart.
That never happened, and after 143 races without a trip to victory lane, the No. 88 crossed the line, taking the checkered flag…and at that point, Junior Nation rose as one to honor the driver that they stood by through all the turmoil, the changes, struggles and wonders.
The old cliche says “Good things come to those who wait” but in this case the wait was far too long. The only question that now remains is when will Junior go back to victory lane.
That won’t be answered today, but for now everyone in NASCAR will savor the victory of their most popular driver.
RESULTS: 1-Earnhardt Jr. 2-Stewart 3-Kenseth 4-Biffle 5-Johnson 6-Gordon 7-Bowyer 8-Montoya 9-Ambrose 10-Harvick
NOTABLE FINISHES: 11-Edwards 15-Newman 29-Martin 32-Kyle Busch 33-Kahne 34-Hamlin
CAUTIONS: 8 for 39 laps. Lap 3-4 (#38, 51 accident-T2), 11-16 (Oil on track), 27-30 (Competition), 52-55 (Competition), 82-86 (Debris), 121-125 (#51 spin-T2), 127-132 (#5, 20, 38 accident-BS), 134-140 (#11, 39 accident-T4).
LEAD CHANGES: 23 among 14 drivers. Ambrose 1-5, Biffle 6-26, Ambrose 27-31, Kenseth 32-48, Ambrose 49-52, Yeley 53, Biffle 54-68, Ambrose 69, Earnhardt Jr. 70-82, Blaney 83, Gilliland 84, Earnhardt Jr. 85-86, Stewart 87-104, Earnhardt Jr. 105-117, Gordon 118, Montoya 119-122, Gordon 123-125, Earnhardt Jr. 126-162, Biffle 163-164, Bowyer 165, McMurray 166, Keselowski 167-169, Burton 170, Earnhardt Jr. 171-200.
TIME OF RACE: 2 Hrs, 52 Mins, 39 Secs.
AVERAGE SPEED: 139.144 MPH
MARGIN OF VICTORY: 5.393 Seconds
POINT STANDINGS: 1. Kenseth, 565 points; 2. Earnhardt Jr, -4; 3. Biffle, -17; 4. Johnson, -33; 5. Hamlin, -51; 6. Harvick, -61; 7. Truex, -68; 8. Stewart, -74; 9. Bowyer, -84; 10. Keselowski, -107; 11. Edwards, -109; 12. Kyle Busch, -133.