The stream of well-wishers and congratulatory hugs and handshakes kept coming Sunday in Victory Lane at Michigan International Speedway.
If Dale Earnhardt Jr. could have embraced everyone who cheered for him not only in the Quicken Loans 400 he had just won but through every heart-breaking moment of the past four years, he no doubt would have. Driving the No. 88 Chevrolet with a logo from the movie The Dark Knight Rises on the hood, Earnhardt had just captured Sunday's race in dominating fashion to break a four-year winless drought in Sprint Cup points races that had stretched to 143 events. In doing so, Earnhardt worked not only the crowd in attendance and many watching on television into a bona fide frenzy, but also apparently those who work with and around him, or even race against him.
Mike Helton, president of NASCAR, stopped by briefly to hug Earnhardt. Helton later told Sirius Radio that it's his belief that Earnhardt -- who sits second in the point standings, only four points behind leader Matt Kenseth -- now is the man to beat for this year's Sprint Cup championship.
Jimmie Johnson, who has won five of those, also dropped by to offer congratulations. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet team shares a Hendrick Motorsports shop with Earnhardt and the No. 88 Chevy team that includes crew chief Steve Letarte.
"This is so great. I'm just proud of Junior. He's been chipping away at it for a while -- especially this year," Johnson said after congratulating his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in Victory Lane. "The communication and the camaraderie between he and Stevie and throughout our shop, I should say, has been amazing. Internally, we've seen this coming. I'm just happy for him to get this off his back now.
"That will shut anybody up who has had anything to say. There's only one way you really want to win -- and that's by kicking everybody's ass. And that's what he did today."
Indeed, he did. This time no fuel-mileage gambit was necessary -- as it was four years ago almost to the day when he last won at the same 2-mile track. This time there was no doubt. This was no fluke, and no one was snickering when Helton joined points leader Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and others in declaring that this season is shaping up as Earnhardt's best chance of winning his first Cup championship.
Earnhardt won by nearly six seconds over second-place finisher Tony Stewart and led a race-high 95 laps, more than twice as many as anyone else. As the race wound down, really the only demons he had to battle were in his own head as he steadily increased the gap between him and Stewart and the rest of the field.
"That was the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go," Earnhardt admitted. "I kept wondering what was going to happen, how you were going to lose. Those last 15 laps couldn't go by fast enough. ... I was in there, just going crazy. I'm looking all around the race track, looking for debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a big piece of metal laying in the middle of the race track.
"I was just waiting for something to happen. That was terrifying, to be honest with you. I kept thinking of Steve and the team and about how hard all of us have worked, and about how we deserved to win and how we should win -- and I was hoping it would happen for everybody."
Gordon, another Hendrick teammate and winner of four championships himself, also visited Earnhardt in Victory Lane after no mysterious metal pieces emerged on the track over the final laps.
"It's amazing for the sport," Gordon said. "You know it's going to be everywhere. It's going to be headlines and it's going to get a lot of attention -- as it should. I mean, he won. He did a great job, and he deserves all the credit in the world for it."
Couch laps and chemistry
Shortly after pulling into Victory Lane, Earnhardt was handed a cell phone. Rick Hendrick, the owner of Hendrick Motorsports, was on the other line.
Earlier, when Earnhardt had learned that Hendrick did not plan to be at MIS on Sunday, he had joked that Hendrick had better have a good excuse.
"I told him he'd better be on a boat somewhere in the Florida Keys," Earnhardt said.
Actually Hendrick was back at home in Charlotte, N.C., but he hardly found it a restful Father's Day as the afternoon wore on. After waiting out a two-hour rain delay before the dropping of the green flag, Hendrick gradually adopted the stance of a nervous father awaiting the birth of a child in the hospital waiting room.
"I was doing laps around my couch -- trying to end this race, man," Hendrick said. "Batman was in a hurry. I was too nervous to stand still. [Wife] Linda and I were just watching it, [saying], 'Come on, no problems.' I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen."
Maybe now that this win is behind them, Earnhardt and Hendrick and Letarte can all begin to, well, not relax a little bit -- but at least eliminate some of the stark fear that obviously crept in toward the end of Sunday's race. But really, who could blame them? After running out of gas on the final lap at Charlotte last year, after running second at Martinsville and Kansas last season and again in this year's Daytona 500, only to come up short of Victory Lane every time, it was understandable that they had to wonder what bad thing might happen next.
This time, no gremlins blocked the path to the checkered flag. Afterward, Hendrick was added to the list of Junior fans who think this could be the 88 team's year.
"I think the chemistry is the best I've seen with any crew chief and driver," Hendrick said of Earnhardt and Letarte. "You just look at the way they've been running and how they had a lot of speed, you knew this was going to come. And you just try to say, 'Dale, don't worry about that stuff, man. You're almost leading the points here. You've got more top-10 [finishes] than anybody. When you run second, third and fourth, you're going to win races.'"
Gordon agreed, and noted the reaction of the throng at the Michigan track to Earnhardt's popular win.
"I mean, you heard the crowd," Gordon said. "We all know the pressure that's been on Junior. Not just on him, but on his entire team and Rick. This is an awesome accomplishment. Those guys have been so solid all year. It's hard to luck your way into one of these things these days. To be as high up in the points as they've been, to be as solid as they've been, it's a well-deserved win overall."
Earnhardt brought a small bobblehead of Hendrick into the media center for his post-race winner's interview, plopping it down next to him in front of a microphone. Then he positively beamed out at the media gathered in front of him, able to bask in the glow of a Sprint Cup victory for the first time since Father's Day in June of 2008 at the same venue.
Asked what it meant to have so many fellow competitors and others rejoice in his latest victory, Earnhardt said: "I guess it means I'm an all-right dude, when people are happy for me and wanted to see me do good. That's the way I am about people. I want to see good people do good things. I want to see good people have success and be happy."
The bobblehead nodded its approval, and Earnhardt continued.
"I feel like we're getting stronger. One of the things we did last year throughout the season was kind of just maintain," he said. "Even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and to be able to run well and be competitive, I was a little disheartened that we didn't progress through the year, really. We didn't find more speed as the year when on. We kind of stayed the same throughout the season. ... This year, we've gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick, and we've gotten quicker -- especially these last couple of weeks. That's been a thrill for me."
It wasn't just that he won Sunday. It was how he won.
"That race we won four years ago was a fuel-mileage deal, and today we just whupped 'em. That felt good," Earnhardt said.
He had complained bitterly the night before the race when an extra practice was added by NASCAR after a last-minute switch to new left-side tires. He said he didn't know what to expect, and was concerned when Letarte shut down the 88 after only 25 laps in the extra practice session.
"They made some changes [Friday] night that I wasn't too happy about," Earnhardt admitted. "But after the extra practice [Saturday], Steve was pretty confident. I was pretty nervous when the race started, because the car wasn't where we needed it to be. I didn't think we were in too big of trouble, but we needed some adjustments.
"At that moment, I guess I worry if Steve knows exactly where I'm at and what I need with the car, how much I need. But I guess he knows me well enough -- because he made the right calls and that thing took off flying. And then he made he made some pit-strategy choices that put us toward the front, to where the car could respond if we had a fast car -- and it did."
In other words, Letarte responded to Sunday's challenge and so did his driver. Earnhardt may have had the Dark Knight gracing the hood of his car, but he rode into Victory Lane like a White Knight for all of NASCAR.
Where they go from here is largely up to them. But before heading to the next race track, Earnhardt already had booked a visit to the Hendrick Motorsports complex to honor a tradition that previously had left him feeling left out.
"We've got this victory bell that I get to take around for the first time since we built it. I plan to ring that thing all over the complex," said Earnhardt, grinning. "I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can."