Racing is a family sport. From dads and moms to sisters and brothers to aunts, uncles and cousins, racing families run deep.
Any given weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway proves this. One example is the Amsoil NELCAR Legends Tour where dads serve as crew chiefs for their son or daughter, and mothers, sisters and girlfriends take the reins for team publicity. Whether it's videotaping the action, watching from the spotters stand or tweeting a picture of the car in the starting grid, the race is a family event.
They visited NHMS for races on both Mother's and Father's Day and celebrated the day with their parents. However, there was one winner yesterday in America who didn't have the opportunity to celebrate the day with his dad.
For the first time in four years, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. travelled to victory lane. He had plenty of people stop by to congratulate him on the win: Jimmie Johnson, who had won three Cup championships during Junior's 143-race winless drought; Jeff Gordon, who leads all current drivers with 85 Cup wins; and Matt Kenseth, who currently leads the Cup standings. However, for all the well-wishers and congratulations, there was one figure noticeably missing: Junior's father, Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who infamously suffered a fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
It's fair to say that the son and driver of the No. 88 owes a lot of his career to his late father. The driver that earned the nickname of "The Intimidator" raced with a "move-or-be-moved" mentality. His style might not have won over many friends on the race track, but his ability to win races garnered throngs of fans during a career that featured a record-tying seven Cup championships.
When he was tragically killed in 2001, his son was already busy trying to fill his shoes. Junior made his Cup debut in 1999 and won two races (and the All Star race) during his full rookie season of 2000. With his life ending so abruptly, fans of the most popular driver needed a place to go, a driver to carry the flame. Who better to do that than one with the same namesake?
Dale Jr. went on to win three races in 2001 and finished in the top-five in the standings in 2003, 2004 and 2006. But, he began bottoming out after that. In 2009, Junior hit rock bottom by finishing 25th in the standings and a 21st in 2010 did little to help him live up to his father's name. During that time, he also began amassing his longest career winless streak.
Something changed in 2011 as he stormed back to finish seventh in the standings, but he still failed to win a race. This year, he's had arguably the strongest year of his career, and on Sunday, it all finally came to fruition.
Four years to the week from his last win, Earnhardt Jr. again visited victory lane on Father's Day. It's ironic that in a sport so entrenched in family that one of the biggest last names in the sport's history finds its way to victory lane on this special day.
Now that the streak is broken, it's hard to imagine that NASCAR will go four years until Dale Jr.'s next win. He sits in second place just four points back of the Cup lead, and Kenseth knows that the No. 88 is right on his bumper. We all know what Earnhardt, Sr. would have done if there was a bumper in his way!
"I think they're definitely a contender," said Kenseth after the race of the No. 88 team. "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."
While Earnhardt won't have the opportunity to celebrate the win with the man that led him into the sport, he will be able to enjoy it with his Henrick Motorsports family. "We've got this victory bell that I get to take around for the first time since we built it," he said after the win. "I plan to ring that thing all over the complex."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounds like someone that knows he's a winner. His father would have been proud.