LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB) -- A little more than a year ago today I was standing outside Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s hauler at Michigan International Speedway, listening to him patiently field what had to seem like his millionth question about his winless streak.
Beyond the streak, I was struck by how Earnhardt didn't flinch at the question, knew it was coming, didn't try to be flip about it or act irritated by it, but to answer it honestly, with an upbeat outlook. He said he felt like he'd been driving better than he had in years, and his team was performing well. He said he felt like it was just a matter of time.
Turns out, his time was a year away. But it came Sunday, at that same Michigan International Speedway, with a victory that ended his winless streak at 143 races, and the response has been overwhelming.
Seldom will you see so many competitors so quick with congratulations. (I was struck, in fact, a year ago by how many said an Earnhardt win would be great for the sport).
Jimmie Johnson, a Hendrick Motorsports teammate, jumped onto Twitter to tap out, "I'm so happy for Jr." Danica Patrick, who drives for Earnhardt's team in the Nationwide Series, Tweeted, "Way to go boss!"
Country star Brad Paisley and Indy Car legend Mario Andretti were among the celebrants.
Everyone in NASCAR knows the score. No amount of marketing mojo the considerable talents at NASCAR could devise would generate as much interest as Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane. The 37-year-old has been voted NASCAR's most popular driver nine straight years. He leads the circuit in merchandise sales every year.
Forget Tiger winning a major. Earnhardt winning a Sprint Cup Race is every bit as big a needle-mover for a sport looking for a spark, and everyone knows it.
Well, everyone, maybe, but Tony Stewart, who said of Earnhardt's win Sunday: " No different than anybody else that does it. It's not a national holiday, guys."
Maybe not, but it was a red-letter day for the sport, and welcome news, certainly, at Kentucky Speedway, which will be the next oval the Sprint Cup visits after a road course race at Sonoma this weekend.
Speedway spokesman Tim Bray hadn't had a chance to check the ticket office this morning, but said that Earnhardt's win can't help but crank up enthusiasm surrounding the Sparta, Ky., track's Quaker State 400 on June 30.
"He's had a tremendous year and it was just a matter of time before he returned to victory lane," Bray said. "We are excited for him and the entire Hendrick Motorsports team. His fans are some of the most loyal in sports. Junior Nation will be well represented at Kentucky. We can't wait."
Last year, Mark Martin said Earnhardt had "the strongest set of shoulders in motorsports." And he has carried a lot, most of all his name, as son of the legendary Dale Earnhardt, who died in a 2001 crash at Daytona.
But he plotted his own course, leaving the family team to join Hendrick Motorsports. As part of that, he was teamed with crew chief Steve Letarte, who no doubt deserves great credit for Earnhardt's resurgence. Junior is not the lightning rod personality that his father was. At times, you sense some discomfort with the glare. But as Martin said, "he gracefully carries the incredible weight under the circumstances."
Example? Let's say Tiger Woods had won the U.S. Open. Can you imagine one of his first quotes after the victory being about his fans? Yet that's where Earnhardt said his mind wandered.
"They stayed loyal," he said. "As soon as I got out of the car, that was my initial thought -- was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs, or running out in the yard, or whatever they do. I just wish I could see it all at once."
Having gotten that first win this season, Earnhardt has much more to play for now. He's second in the Cup Chase points, and is as much a threat to win a points title as anyone. He has more top 10 finishes than any driver this year. He's the only driver to finish every race on the lead lap.
Talk about interesting -- if he could take over the points lead at Kentucky, officials at that track would have themselves a memorable moment.
At the very least, NASCAR is ready for another close-up. And folks at Kentucky Speedway are happy to be along for the ride.