CHARLOTTE, N.C. — OK, it’s just one win. The first in four years, no less.
And as Tony Stewart pointed out, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returning to Victory Lane doesn’t warrant a national holiday.
But there is a level of importance to Earnhardt snapping his 143-race losing streak that goes beyond the immediate boost to NASCAR, which has been starving of late for any sort of scintillating story line unrelated to another Kurt Busch meltdown.
What Earnhardt did Sunday at Michigan International Speedway was a lesson in perseverance, and a teachable moment for parents everywhere. Earnhardt proved you can hit rock bottom and rise again.
Some might roll their eyes at this point, perhaps even snicker at the notion that Earnhardt has ever had it rough. He’s rich, has a secure sponsorship and rock-solid job security with Rick Hendrick, the most powerful owner in NASCAR.
He also has a very famous last name, an enormous fan base and is the one driver who can absolutely move the needle for NASCAR. It’s a lot of pressure to carry around 11 months a year, particularly when stuck in a never-ending slump.
It wasn’t just a slump, either. There have been stretches since 2008 where Earnhardt simply wasn’t very good. The first came in 2009, when his five top-10 finishes tied the career-low set in his 2000 rookie season. But he won two races and the All-Star event that first year, and with it came a bravado that overshadowed the on-track inconsistency.
So 2009 was unlike any other season for NASCAR’s most popular driver, and the hole he fell into was so deep that it took him until Sunday to finally climb out. That season snowballed on him, and tension with cousin Tony Eury Jr. had reached its breaking point by Memorial Day. Earnhardt finished 40th in the Coca-Cola 600, and Hendrick pulled the trigger a few days later with a much-needed divorce that both Earnhardt and Eury were too emotionally invested to realize themselves.
Earnhardt’s confidence was totally shattered. And no matter how good he might be at tuning out the critics, it couldn’t have been easy to look in the mirror when his teammates were proving there was nothing wrong with the equipment.
And no matter how hard he tried, Earnhardt couldn’t make the relationship with crew chief Lance McGrew take off.
So next up was Steve Letarte. Nobody knew whether he could actually pick Earnhardt up and coach him back to Victory Lane, but that’s the genius of Hendrick, who realized Earnhardt desperately needed someone to restore his confidence. Letarte played the cheerleader role to perfection, and though Earnhardt didn’t win last season, he improved his top-fives and top-10s and returned to the Chase for the first time since 2008.
It set the stage for this season. Through 15 races, Earnhardt has matched his top-10s from last season, improved his top-fives (he has six after four last year) and his 218 laps led are his most since 2008.
The turnaround is so impressive that Earnhardt – the guy who just snapped a four-year losing streak – is suddenly considered a viable championship contender.