One of the most anticipated moments in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing finally happened on Sunday afternoon at the Michigan International Speedway, when one of the most popular drivers on the circuit reclaimed his throne as a winner in the most elite form of stock car racing.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was mired in a four-year winless streak dating back to the 2008 running of the spring Michigan race, finally captured his 19th career Cup win.
The third-generation racer drove a masterful race in his No. 88 The Dark Knight Rises/Mt. Dew/National Guard Chevrolet Impala, leading 95 of 200 laps, en route to a convincing victory over Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Jimmie Johnson.
Starting 17th, Earnhardt dropped back a few positions in the early going before pit strategy executed by crew chief Steve Letarte and a strong car in clean air propelled the Kannapolis, NC native into a lead that he seldom relinquished.
When Earnhardt crossed the start/finish line for his first checkered flag in four years, he was at a loss for words.
"I don't know what to say," he said to crew chief Steve Letarte as he zoomed past the start/finish line.
After enduring four years in which countless questions were fielded at him about whether or not he had what it took to compete consistently for wins and titles in the Cup circuit, those questions will be refined and returned.
Instead of the press asking Earnhardt when he'll win again in a Cup car, the question will now be the one every elite driver is asked:
When will you win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship?
For now, Earnhardt relished his win and appreciated all the support that his car owner Rick Hendrick and his teammates gave him during the highly publicized drought.
"Winning races is all you ever want," Earnhardt said per Yahoo! Sports' Jay Hart's article. "You work real hard to get there. I have got to thank Rick Hendrick and the whole organization really for sticking with me. They could have taken another route, but they stuck with me, and we are back to victory lane."
The road back to the winner's circle was long and somewhat cruel for Earnhardt, whose return to the top seemed to fade away countless times, such as last year's Coca-Cola 600 and Aaron's 499, races in which he was in position to capitalize on getting that all important victory.
While he hasn't been his dominant self from 2003 and '04, he's been dubbed as "Mr. Consistency," with six top-fives and he leads all drivers with 12 top-10's through 15 races.
Runner-up Tony Stewart observed the magnitude of Earnhardt's win, saying, "National holiday tomorrow."
It was another good finish for the three-time and defending Cup champion, who had a somewhat rough month of May with finishes of 24th and 25th.
Kenseth came home third in his No. 17 EcoBoost Ford Fusion, retaining his points lead but seeing it shrink to only four markers ahead of race winner Earnhardt.
Biffle and Johnson took home solid top-five finishes, while Jeff Gordon charged his way from 28th to sixth with a temperamental No. 24 DuPont Performance Alliance Chevy.
Rounding out the top-10 finishers were Juan Pablo Montoya, pole sitter Marcos Ambrose, and Kevin Harvick.
Joe Gibbs Racing had somewhat of a rough day in the Irish Hills of Michigan, as Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin fell by the wayside via mechanical ailments while last Sunday's Pocono 400 winner Joey Logano crashed hard in the backstretch with David Gilliland and Kasey Kahne.
Finishing 11th through 14th were Carl Edwards, Martin Truex, Jr., Brad Keselowski, and Jamie McMurray, who were the last racers on the lead lap.
After racing on ovals for the first 15 rounds of 2012, the NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and teams will hit up "wine country" and dine at the 1.99-mile road course known as Sonoma Raceway.
Defending race winner Kurt Busch hopes to shed light with his "rebranding" season at Phoenix Racing with a win at the California road course while Jeff Gordon hopes to join the Hendrick Motorsports "victory parade" with his sixth win at the winding speedway.
Here's a look at the current Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings, with projected wild card seeds included:
- Matt Kenseth (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
- Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (Hendrick/Chevy/1 win)
- Greg Biffle (Roush-Fenway/Ford/1 win)
- Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick/Chevy/2 wins)
- Denny Hamlin (Gibbs/Toyota/2 wins)
- Kevin Harvick (Childress/Chevy)
- Martin Truex, Jr. (Waltrip/Toyota)
- Tony Stewart (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/2 wins)
- Clint Bowyer (Waltrip/Toyota)
- Brad Keselowski (Penske/Dodge/2 wins)
- Kyle Busch (Gibbs/Toyota/1 win)
- Ryan Newman (Stewart-Haas/Chevy/1 win)