There are a lot of different ways to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Sometimes you win based on the right tire or fuel strategy, and sometimes it's plain luck or a combination of strange factors that play a role in deciding which driver wins or loses on a given weekend.
How Dale Earnhardt Jr. went about winning the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday was neither luck nor the right strategy; it was a combination of a determined driver and a car that could have easily been misidentified as a rocket ship, as he won by a hefty 5-second margin.
This was a statement victory in every way imaginable.
From the time the No. 88 car was unloaded and hit the track Thursday in open testing, it was clear to all that this might be the weekend where the 143-race winless dry spell came to a merciful end. Yet, despite the optimism, doubt still hung in the air like a pesky cloud that keeps the sun from shining to its full capacity.
In the past four years, there were numerous times when many had the same feeling as the one they had this weekend –where it seemed inevitable that Earnhardt Jr. would finally win his 19th career race.
Four years is a long time. Since Earnhardt Jr. last won, 26 drivers of varying degrees of talent had tasted victory in a Sprint Cup race. And as each week went by and NASCAR's most popular driver continually failed to do what everyone expected of him, doubt begin to creep in. Would Earnhardt Jr. ever win again?
And as the months ticked by – 48 total between wins – it became fashionable among the media and fans alike to proclaim that Earnhardt Jr. was back after every near-miss or stretch of races where the 88 car was consistently running up front.
But on Sunday, Earnhardt Jr. responded to his doubters forcefully and reminded his naysayers and even his longtime fans that he was still the driver who on multiple occasions challenged for the championship. That from this moment forth it would no longer be acceptable to point at him and say that he was not the driver he once was or that he didn't have the burning desire to be great or that at this point in his career he was living off of past accomplishments and his famous last name.
This is why now, on this date – June 17, 2012 – we can officially declare Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back.