What will Junior learn from long-awaited win?
Jun 18, 2012
I'm elated that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, breaking an arduous 143-race winless streak.
It's not only great for Junior, who has worked his butt off to return to victory lane perhaps harder than at any other point in his career, but also for NASCAR, which has needed this kind of uplifting ever since TV ratings and at-track attendance began plummeting in 2007 and 2008.
(Is it a coincidence that drop-off began just around the time Junior started falling downward in performance and results? And, wasn't it NASCAR chairman Brian France who said – also at Michigan, one year after Junior's 2008 win – that as Junior goes, so goes NASCAR, that the sanctioning body really needed him to win to right the wrongs and difficulties that the sport has undergone the last few years?)
Yes, I really am glad for Junior, but at the risk of sounding like Debby Downer, let's hope the resulting soundtrack isn't the same broken record that began after Junior's last win – the same one that preceded the start of his now-snapped 143-race winless streak.
Lost and seemingly forgotten amidst all the excitement, cheering, standing ovations and jubilation of Earnhardt's win Sunday is the fact that it not only occurred in the same place as his last win, but it also was preceded by yet another long winless streak.
Look it up: Junior's win at Michigan on June 15, 2008 snapped the second-longest winless streak of his career, a 76-race skein without a visit to victory lane that began with the 11th race of the 2006 season.
I vividly recall how a then-smiling Junior expressed relief and exasperation at cutting that 76-race anchor loose. I was there at MIS when he won that fateful race in 2008 and remember how Junior talked about how he was going to go on and win a lot more races and championships now that particular monkey was finally off his back.
Unfortunately, he went on to win exactly zip – no more races, and certainly zero championships.
At the time after his 2008 win, I feared Junior might be a bit overconfident, maybe even bordering on cocky, at the way he spoke about he broke the 76-race winless streak.
I also remember thinking to myself as he left the media center at MIS that day that as easy as it was for him to finally win a race, it was equally as easy for him to go right back and start losing races again.
I'm not patting myself on the back, but as it turned out, that's exactly what happened. He went from what had been the longest winless streak of his career at that point to an even longer winless streak – almost doubling the length of the drought of the first one.
When he walked into his post-race press conference Sunday, I wondered if Earnhardt would be the same way as he was four years ago, or whether he had learned some very valuable lessons after his 2008 triumph.
Two minutes into Sunday's meeting with the press, I had my answer.
Junior has indeed learned from the 2008 fallout. Rather than overconfident or cocky, he seemed particularly reserved Sunday. Whereas in 2008, when he was practically jumping off the walls in victorious jubilation, Sunday was a whole different story.
Whether it was cautiousness or simply not wanting to make the same mistake twice, the Earnhardt we saw Sunday was not only unquestionably more reserved in his demeanor, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a little voice going off in the back of his head that kept repeating over and over, "Remember 2008, remember 2008."
And unlike 2008, when he had kicked the losing dog to the curb and was ready to become the driver so many had predicted he would be – only to go on to perform worse than he ever had in his career – the Junior we saw Sunday promises a whole different look going forward.
He won't take winning for granted. He'll be cognizant of all the struggles and resulting hard work that it took from him, his crew chief and his team to finally return to victory lane for the first time in 1,460 days.
Think of that: four years doesn't seem like such a long time. But 1,460 days seems like an eternity, which in racing circles, Junior's winless streak most definitely was.
And perhaps most importantly, he won't let his mistakes of old become new mistakes of the future.
It's easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of Junior's accomplishment Sunday. That's human nature, even for non-Earnhardt fans.
But for all the tests he's had to go through the last four years, the biggest test still lies ahead: can he take all that hard work and effort and finally, once and for all, become the driver, winner and champion his fans have felt for years that he is – or should be.
Even some of his fellow drivers, most notably Matt Kenseth, one of Junior's closest friends, admitted after Sunday that Earnhardt may now be the man to beat for the Cup championship this season. Not just because of Sunday's win, but because it capped off what has been Earnhardt's most consistent and successful season to-date. If Earnhardt's performance can convince a guy like Kenseth that he's finally and truly for real, and with the promise of even greater success and achievements in the remaining 21 races on the 2012 schedule, then maybe Junior truly and indeed is for real, for sure.
I have a strong feeling in my heart that yes, Junior will go forward and instead of repeating what happened four years ago and starting perhaps a 200-race winless streak next week in Sonoma, he will indeed start to become the kind of driver we've waited over 12 years for him to become.
And if he does slip back into the kind of persona that resulted after he won in 2008, one thing should snap him back to reality real quick: while winning Sunday was great, coupled with his previous win, the fact of the matter is Junior has still won just two races in his last 221 starts, dating back to 2006.
If that's not a sobering enough reality, nothing is.