So how do we describe it? What adjectives can we use and how many times?
And how many facts and figures can we apply to best relate the impact and significance of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first victory in four years and 143 races – the sixth-largest losing streak in NASCAR Sprint Cup history?
Frankly, I don’t think that anything is going to be enough. It doesn’t make any difference how much is said or written; there will always be more.
The impact of Earnhardt Jr.’s victory is clear enough. After years of frustrating mediocre performances with Hendrick Motorsports – the team with which Earnhardt Jr. declared he could win races and championships – the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet finally delivers.
And in so doing, at long last, NASCAR’s most popular driver rewards his long-suffering, yet steadfastly loyal, legion of fans – those members of the “Junior Nation.”
The irony of Earnhardt Jr.’s 19th career victory is not lost. He won the Quicken Loans 400
at Michigan on Father’s Day. The last time he won, in 2008, it was at Michigan and on Father’s Day.
As for father, Earnhardt Jr.’s was the late Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR’s iconic driver who left his son a tremendous legacy.
The elder Earnhardt drove a black Chevrolet. His son won at Michigan in a black Chevrolet.
Earnhardt Jr. has now won twice at Michigan in his career. His father won twice at the track during his lifetime.
It is almost cosmic – as if everything in time and space aligned to provide a most emotional victory for a downtrodden driver with a huge legacy and the support of thousands of fans, who are now thrilled and grateful.
It’s the conclusion of a fairy tale or a warm-hearted, tearful family motion picture crafted by Hollywood.
Give me a break. It is none of those things.
Instead it is the inevitable result of a driver and team that have long since proven their worth in 2012.
This season they have not been underdogs. They have not been underachievers. They have not been respected weaklings that determinedly held a place among their stronger peers, like “Rudy.”
Instead they have been a highly competitive union that has, this season, produced one of the best, if not the best, record in NASCAR.
Their performances, so different from years past, have been so superior that even Earnhardt Jr.’s harshest critics could no longer ask if the driver could win.
The question now was, when?
And now we know.
True to his season from, Earnhardt Jr. was competitive almost from the start of the race.
The event was fraught with intrigue. A repaved two-mile surface had significantly increased speeds. Drivers were smashing the 200 mph barrier.
Tire wear became such a great concern that, over the weekend, Goodyear and NASCAR opted to switch the left sides to a harder compound and teams had one late, previously unscheduled practice session to adapt to it.
On Sunday, early morning rain pretty much washed away any rubber and created a new, untested surface.
Would all of this create new, potentially dangerous, scenarios?
For the most part it didn’t. For Earnhardt Jr., none of them ever existed. He raced fast and unfettered.
He started 17th, one of 19 drivers to break 200 mph in qualifying, and by 70 of 200 laps he was in the lead.
There were no handling problems. His tires were unaffected – which could not be said for several others.
Earnhardt Jr., who beat Tony Stewart by more than five seconds, went on to lead 95 laps, more than any other driver. At Pocono, he led 36 laps and finished eighth only because fuel mileage ultimately favored others.
He’s now led 131 laps in the last two races, again more than any other driver. He has led 218 laps in 2012. He led only 52 in all of 2011.
Last year he finished seventh in points, his best showing since 2005. This season he’s never been out of the top 10 and is, for the second week in a row, No. 2, a mere four points behind Matt Kenseth.
His Michigan victory is his 12th finish among the top 10 this season, tops among all drivers – and which matches his top-10 output in all of 2011.
So it is clear Earnhardt Jr. is not an underdog who won by some kind act of fate.
He is a winner because, as one of the season’s dominant drivers with a dominant team, it was inevitable.
”Man, this is incredible,” he said. “I just didn’t know when it would happen. I knew it was going to happen, just didn’t know when. We were getting pretty impatient.
“I gotta give Steve Letarte (crew chief) and the team he puts around us all the credit. They’ve been building some great cars this year. We’ve been really strong every week and we have just been getting better and better.
“Last year we couldn’t really get better. We just stayed the same all year. This year we’ve been faster and faster.”
The enormity and impact of his victory is not lost on Earnhardt Jr. He knows full well the disappointment his fans have felt – after all, he’s felt it himself.
But he also knows what it means to them. Earnhardt Jr. has never been one not to show appreciation for the support he’s received over the years.
“To do this for my fans, they’ve stuck behind me for all these years,” he said amid the post-race celebration. “And I know exactly what they’ve been thinking about and how long they’ve been wanting us to get into victory lane. And so this is for them.
“I appreciate their loyalty and their support. And we wouldn’t have made it back to victory lane without it.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s victory at Michigan wasn’t something penned by the Brothers Grimm or filmed by the Disney Studios.
It was the expected, even logical, achievement by a driver and team that have been consistently strong all season long – no surprises here.
And now, the bar has been raised.
Earnhardt Jr. is in fully immersed in a championship battle. Many will expect him to contend for a first title. They will expect him to win again.
Certainly he can do both. He is confident.
“Back when me and Lance (McGrew, crew chief) were trying to figure it out, we worked hard together. We didn’t beat on each other too bad, but just couldn’t get it figured out.
“It takes a unique combination. You can put the best people together and sometimes not get it to work. It takes a certain combination, and we found one that works for me.
“I hope – believe – that we are not though winning races.”