By RICK MINTER / Universal Uclick
Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew away the field at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday, ending a four-year, 143-race losing streak and setting off debate on just what his victory means to him and to the sport of NASCAR racing.
Some, including NASCAR president Mike Helton, are saying that Earnhardt is now a favorite to win the championship this year.
His stats, even before the Michigan victory, indicate that he’s good at gathering points even on days when he isn’t riding a winning car. He leads all Cup drivers with 12 top-10 finishes this season and he’s second in the standings, just four points behind Matt Kenseth.
Kenseth told reporters that he’s pretty sure that Earnhardt is happy to put behind him a long and much-discussed losing streak.
“I don’t know what it means for him personally on it to get that win, but I know that even if he acts like it isn’t, it was probably a burden having all your fans talking about you and writing stuff about you not winning,” he said, adding that the way Earnhardt’s been running this year, the win was only a matter of time.
“That 88 [Earnhardt’s team] has had a ton of speed and hasn’t always got the finishes, but they have been battling in the top five each week. You could just see they kept knocking on the door, and [Sunday] they were able to kick it down and dominated the race pretty good.”
And Kenseth said he wouldn’t dispute the notion that Earnhardt, who was a fellow Cup rookie with him back in 2000, is a threat to win the title.
“I think they are definitely a contender,” he said. “They have been in the mix each race no matter what size or shape of race track. I think they are, at this point in the season, one of the favorites.”
Tony Stewart, runner-up at Michigan, didn’t appear to be in the mood to talk about the big day for the Junior Nation when he made his stop in the media room after the race.
“It’s not a national holiday, guys,” Stewart said of Earnhardt’s win, even though it did come on Father’s Day. “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.”
For his part, Earnhardt seemed to be relishing the praise from his peers.
“I guess it means I’m an all-right dude,” he said with a chuckle. “When people are happy for you, they want to see you do good.
“That’s the way I feel about people; I want to see good people do good things, and I want to see people that I think are good people have success and be happy.”
Earnhardt seemed more excited about his dominant victory, one in which he led five times for 95 laps including the final 30, than relieved that his losing streak was over.
Even before he won, he told reporters at Michigan that he didn’t believe the media has harped too much on his losing streak.
“It hasn’t been that incessant,” he said. “I feel like it’s just a realistic inquiry, and I feel pretty comfortable answering that question.”
Earnhardt said he tried to be honest with his answers, and there’s general agreement in the garage that he was just that.
“I feel like I’ve told you how terrible we might have been and why we weren’t winning or how close we are and that it’s right around the corner,” he said. “I’m just telling you my gut feeling. But I don’t feel like you guys [media] have asked the question too many times, because I think that if you weren’t asking that kind of question, I’d be a little worried that nobody gives a dang when you’re going to win …
“There are other things about finishes and weekends and what happens to you on the race track that can bother you way worse than that to keep you up at night.”