More than four years after his last victory, Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally won a NASCAR race, taking the checkered flag at Michigan International Speedway.
Going into Sunday's race, Earnhardt had competed in 143 consecutive races without netting a win - a maddening streak that left Earnhardt, his crew and his legions of fans salivating for a victory.
That's not to say Earnhardt Jr. has been slumping this entire time. On the contrary, he is considered to be one of the best racers in NASCAR, especially this year. While Earnhardt may not have been in victory lane, for example, his number of top five finishes in that timeframe is the envy of many a driver. And in the Sprint Cup Series, with last weekend's win taken into account, Earnhardt is just four points behind the leader, Matt Kenseth.
Perhaps that's what made the streak all the more problematic for Earnhardt and his team. No matter how well the team was doing, all the racer could hear were the questions about when he was going to win. Despite coming close on several occasions, the streak marched on.
When Earnhardt crossed the finish line a solid five seconds ahead of Tony Stewart in the recent race, it was a moment of catharsis for just about everyone involved in the Earnhardt brand.
"I know you guys have been waiting on that one," Earnhardt reportedly radioed as he crossed the finish line, according to NASCAR News Service. "I know I have."
The time and place of the victory was fitting in a number of different ways. It was four years and two days since Earnhardt's last win, which came at the same raceway, Michigan International Speedway, in 2008. Several commentators also noted that Earnhardt won on Father's Day - and his legendary father is obviously well-known among NASCAR fans.
If it had been any other driver out in front with fifteen laps to go, analysts might have said the end was never in doubt. Junior had built up quite a lead on the rest of the field as the race came to a close, and it appeared nobody would catch him. Yet given the number of near-misses Earnhardt fans have witnessed over the years, just about everyone was expecting some curveball - a restart, car trouble or something that would make the race closer.
"That was the worst feeling, riding around there with 15 laps to go, wondering what was going to happen - how you were going to lose," Earnhardt told ESPN. "Those laps couldn't go by fast enough. I was in there just going crazy. I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I just was waiting on something to happen. That was terrifying."
That moment never came, and Earnhardt comfortably beat Stewart for the victory. Kenseth claimed third place to stay atop the Sprint Cup standings, while Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five. After the race, the defending champion Stewart said he didn't see what the big deal was.
"It's no different than anybody else that does it - it's not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said. "This morning they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all in a state of mourning now, 'cause he's broke that string now, so I wonder what we're all supposed to think."