Junior’s win calls for a holiday

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Jerry Bonkowski

BROOKLYN, Mich. – If you employ or work with a Dale Earnhardt Jr. fan, don't be surprised if he or she calls in sick on Monday.

Even though runner-up Tony Stewart said "it's not a national holiday, guys," you'd better believe fans of NASCAR's most popular driver the last 10 years running will continue the celebration of Earnhardt's win Sunday at Michigan International Speedway into Monday, Tuesday and maybe until next Sunday's race at Sonoma.

It was THAT impressive.

After so many close calls, seven runner-up finishes and questions about whether Earnhardt had lost his drive and desire, Sunday's dominating performance – which snapped a career-long 143-race winless streak, to boot – was truly a feat worthy of celebration.

... we just whooped 'em.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

After plummeting TV ratings and serious drop-offs in at-track attendance over the last four years – coincidentally, right during the time of Junior's winless streak – for at least one day, all was back to being right with the NASCAR world Sunday.

While I first chuckled at Stewart's post-race national holiday comment, the more I thought about it the more I realized that indeed Smoke was 100 percent right with his assessment.

Sure, Earnhardt broke the longest winning streak of his career and could visualize his millions of diehard fans "in their living rooms, screaming at the top of their lungs or running out into the yards," there's a cautionary tale to be told from Sunday's jubilation.

Not to rain on Earnhardt's parade, but go back to his last win in 2008. It was at the same track, and almost four years to the day as Sunday's triumph.

But lost among Sunday's uplifting celebratory mood is something I hate to remind Junior and his fans of: his win on June 15, 2008 snapped what had been to that point his then-longest winless streak, a 76-race skein without a trip to victory lane.

I was at that race and vividly recall Junior's disposition afterward. Sure, he had a right to be happy and celebratory. But he also started talking that more wins and championships were on their way. He all but guaranteed such.

Unfortunately, the only thing that happened after that 2008 triumph was more of the same – more losses, a longer losing streak and most definitely no championships.

Sunday, however, the closest Junior would allow himself to give in to cockiness was when he said, "That race four years ago was a fuel mileage race, but today, we just whooped 'em."

To me, that's not cockiness, that's fact. Junior did indeed whoop the other 42 drivers on the track Sunday. He led the most laps, had the most dominating car and literally ran away with the race in the final 50 laps – much to the chagrin of guys like Stewart.

"This morning, they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all going to stay in mourning because he broke that string now," Stewart poignantly pointed out again.

Or, on the other hand, Junior fans may once again go from being teased with another win and believing he'll finally become the great driver that's been predicted of him since his first full Cup race in 2000, to lamenting more losses to come.

But unlike 2008, I really think that Junior will finally start living up to some of the hype that has followed him over the years. Sunday's win in my mind won't be just another one-off. Rather, it'll be the ignition that could take Earnhardt on the biggest rocket ride of his life.

I'm trying not to get too caught up in the hype and excitement. I'm trying to be level-headed about what happened Sunday. I'm also trying to keep things in perspective.

Victory lane: race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Victory lane: race winner Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet

Photo by: Action Sports Photography

However, I've watched Earnhardt's career up-close for the last 11 years. I've been on hand for many of the wins in his glory days with DEI.

Unfortunately, I've been at more races that he's lost. In fact, if you look back on the now-ended four-year losing run, I'd be bold enough to say that Junior could now write a book on all the ways to lose a race.

Wait, he could have done that after the 76-race winless streak. So I guess that means he could write a sequel now that the 143-race winless streak has ended.

Will there be a third edition now? No, given the hard lessons he's learned the last four years, the maturity he's gained and the boot camp training he's gone through at the hands of crew chief Steve Letarte, Junior is once and for all, finally, the real deal.

Let's hope he doesn't let Sunday's win go to his head like his win four years ago did.

But if it does, he can be snapped back into reality with a few numbers: Sunday was one win, but it was also only his second win in over six years, a stretch of 221 races.

And if that doesn't do the trick, remind him that it didn't take just four years to finally win another race: it also took 1,460 days. Somehow, that seems to have a bit more bite than just saying four years, don't you think?

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Series NASCAR-CUP
Tags bonkowski, commentary, earnhardt, featured, michigan