At last it's over, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. can smile.
Actually, he's always been able to smile. That's one of the things Junior Nation loves.
But now, after last week's victory at Michigan, the most popular driver in NASCAR can breathe. He doesn't have to be afraid anymore. He's won. He spent the past four years -- since his last win, also at Michigan -- wondering when he would win again, if he would win again, and what would keep it from happening.
"I was so nervous in the last few laps of that race four years ago, and today, this was the worst," he said after the win on Father's Day. "That's the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go, wondering what's going to happen or how you were going to lose."
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He laughed as he said that.
"Man, those laps could not go by fast enough. I was like 'I've got a big lead, I'm going to take it easy. No, I want to run it hard, get it over with.' So I was just in there going crazy, thinking, and I'm looking all around the racetrack hoping there's no debris around the next corner. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal lying in the racetrack. I was just waiting on something to happen.
"So that was terrifying to be honest with you."
Then how's this for scary?
Junior, people are saying you're the new favorite for the Sprint Cup championship.
"I don't know really where we stand in the competition level and what-have-you, where we are, as far as being a threat to win the title," he said. "We just want to -- we just kind of kept our nose to the grindstone to try to win a race. We'll just try to keep doing that and win the next race and see what happens."
What's happened so far is a solid season that Earnhardt wasn't being given full credit for because of the victory drought. Before Michigan, he had only three "bad" races. He hadn't been a threat to win every week, but he and crew chief Steve Letarte kept piling up good finishes -- seconds, thirds, fourths, sixths.
He's the only driver who's run every lap this year, and he's only four points out of first in the driver standings. Come September, the Michigan win is also going to give him three bonus points in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
"I've never had bonus points for the Chase," he said, again with a laugh, then thought about what's ahead. "I feel like we want to win some more races before the Chase starts, obviously, and you know, we'll think about where we are points-wise when that all happens after Richmond. But I don't want to get too far ahead of myself. We have to go to Sonoma and figure out how to get around there and how to get my first top-10 at that place. We have a lot to accomplish this year."
Those words ring true. Earnhardt has never won on a road course. He still has only two wins in four years now. And he's winless on five of the Chase tracks.
But he's got consistency on his side. And now, confidence.
"One of the things that we did last year throughout the season was kind of maintain, and I was a little -- even though I was happy as hell to be with Steve and be able to run well and be competitive -- I was a little disheartened that I didn't progress through the year, really. I didn't find more speed as the year went on. We just kind of stayed the same throughout the season.... This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick, and we have gotten quicker and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me."
Who can't smile about that?
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407