Car owner Rick Hendrick watched last Sunday’s race at the Michigan International Raceway from home. And like most in NASCAR, he could barely contain his emotions in the closing lap as Dale Earnhardt Jr. got closer to ending a four-year losing streak.
“I was doing laps around my couch, trying to end this race, man,” Hendrick said. “I was too nervous to stand still. Linda (wife) and I were just watching it, come on, no problems. I was so afraid there was going to be a caution, or something was going to happen.”
The moment Earnhardt crossed the finish line there was a collective sigh of relief from every corner of the stock car world. The most-popular driver had finally snapped a 143-race winless streak, which may have pumped new life into the sport.
The competition was quick to react. Jeff Gordon came to Victory Lane. So did Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. NASCAR president Mike Helton stopped by as well, proclaiming Earnhardt as a championship contender.
Much like Tiger Woods in golf, Earnhardt has been able to put fans in the stands and drive television ratings. When he's on, business is good. When he's not, everyone else suffers.
That’s why his dominating performance was embraced by so many.
“I like seeing, you know, I like seeing the smiles on everyone else’s, on everybody else’s face,” Earnhardt said. “I’m going to enjoy this and I am enjoying this. It’s so awesome to see how many other people it affects and how many people are affected by that kind of what happened today. I don’t want to get carried away, but we have a great thing going.”
And everyone else is along for the ride.
“I know how hard he’s been working on this and how bad he’s wanted it and how good this is going to make him feel,” Johnson said. “The confidence it’s going to give him and that race team for the rest of the year and for the time to come, I’m just super-stoked for him.”
Since winning at Michigan four years ago, Earnhardt has come close with seven second-place finishes. This is has been his best and most consistent season since moving to Sprint Cup in 2000. He has 10 top-10 finishes in 15 races, and he’s finished on the lead lap in every race. His worst effort of the year is a respectable 17th-place at Darlington, S.C.
After coming close so many other times, Earnhardt finally closed the deal on Sunday. And in a rare moment of emotion, the son of seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt took time to witness the reaction. Most of the 82,000 fans at Michigan were on their feet, waving their arms and screaming in delight. Television executives and track promoters probably were doing the same.
“I came off of Turn 4 for the checkered and they were pretty excited all the way down the front straightaway,” Earnhardt said. “I felt good for them because they had – my fans had went through a lot to stay dedicated and they stayed loyal, and they asked – they wondered why we weren’t competitive.
“There were a couple two or three years ago, where we were far from competitive; I was, as a driver. They wanted to know why we weren’t competitive and they wondered what was missing, but they never doubted me. So I know there was a lot of people that were happy today. I could tell; I felt the fan base. I felt the excitement and the emotion from them immediately, almost immediately.
“As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs and running out in the yard or whatever they do.”
The Charlotte Motor Speedway quickly tried to harness the groundswell by offering two tickets for $88 -- Earnhardt's car number -- for its race on Oct. 19.
Hendrick has been one of Earnhardt's biggest fans during the drought. To mark the victory, the car owner will throw a big bash.
“Well, we had Brad Paisley come down and play for our 200th win (as a company),” Hendrick said. “No telling what we might do for this one. I don’t know, but we’re going to do something. We do like to celebrate together, because the organization just works so hard and they want to see Junior do so well.”
Tony Stewart finished a distant second to Earnhardt on Sunday. Unlike most, he wasn’t consumed by the positive consequences of the win – even if he benefits indirectly from them.
“It’s not a national holiday, guys,” he said. “This morning, they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we are all in a state of mourning now because he’s broke that streak now, so I don’t know what we are all supposed to think.”
Earnhardt knows his fan base is the best in racing. Despite his troubles, more people still wear his souvenir gear than the rest. That loyalty was rewarded last Sunday. It also fueled his desire to be something more than someone more significant than a master of marketing.
“To do it for my fans, they’ve stuck behind me for all these years,” he said. “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. That’s who I’ve got to give all the credit to.”