BROOKLYN, Mich. - More than an hour after taking his first checkered flag in four years and two days, Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't escape the throngs of well-wishers at Michigan International Speedway.
As six police officers escorted the champagne-drenched driver from victory lane toward a postrace interview in the media center, Earnhardt still was being mobbed by autograph seekers. A few hundred fans cheered and snapped photos from behind the frontstretch catchfence 100 feet away, where many hadn't moved since the Hendrick Motorsports driver captured his 19th career victory. Teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon stopped by the postrace celebration to offer congratulations, and rivals such as fourth-place finisher Greg Biffle gushed about how excited they were that the No. 88 Chevrolet was first again.
"I guess it means I'm an all right dude," Earnhardt, 37, said with a chuckle. "When people are happy for you and want to see you do good, that's the way I feel about people. I want to see good people do good things and have success."
His victory in the Quicken Loans 400 could be the harbinger of a wave of success for NASCAR's most popular driver. Beyond marking just the end of a 143-race winless streak (the sixth-longest drought between wins in Sprint Cup history), the dominating performance also signified Earnhardt's emergence as a prime threat for his first championship in NASCAR's premier series.
"We just whooped them really good," he said.
Earnhardt's win was a contrast to his last when he stretched his gas tank to the limits at Michigan in a fuel-mileage race. On Sunday, he led a race-high 95 of 200 laps in a race delayed almost two hours by rain, including 80 of the final 96, ceding the lead only on pit stops.
His 5.393-second margin of victory over Tony Stewart was the second biggest of the Cup season, and it came on a 2-mile oval whose breakneck speeds and aerodynamic finickiness often bring out the best in title-contending teams. After missing the Chase for the Sprint Cup in two of the past three seasons, Earnhardt trails Matt Kenseth by only four points and leads the circuit with 12 top-10 finishes - matching his total for 2011.
"Really, they have been the guys all year," said Kenseth, who took third. "That 88 has had a ton of speed and have been up there battling in the top five each and every week. You could see they kept knocking on the door, and today they were able to kick it down and dominated the race. I definitely think they are one of the (title) favorites."
It's what has been predicted for Earnhardt since he joined powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports in 2008.
"He's just switched on," said team owner Rick Hendrick, who called Earnhardt in victory lane from his Charlotte home. "Every week, they're the best by far. I think he's sitting in the catbird seat to win his first championship."
Earnhardt took a while savoring the moment, making an extended burnout down the straightaway to Turn 4 and then whipping his car around down pit lane. As he rolled toward victory lane, several crew chiefs and crewmembers ran to his car for high-fives in a scene that was somewhat reminiscent of the congratulatory receiving line after his father won the Daytona 500 for the first time in 1998.
But Earnhardt Jr. said the seven-time champion, who died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, wasn't on his mind after notching his second victory on Father's Day.
"As soon as I got out of the car, my initial thoughts was about how many people were in their living rooms screaming at the top of their lungs, running out in their yard," he said. "I just wish I could see it all at once. That was the one thing I kept thinking about."
Stewart: 'Not a national holiday'
The victory certainly was on the minds of Junior Nation, Earnhardt's fervent supporters who stuck with him throughout the drought. Within 20 minutes of the race's conclusion, #DaleJr was trending worldwide on Twitter as ebullient celebrities (country music performers Charlie Daniels and Brad Paisley, former NFL star and current analyst Warren Sapp and pro wrestling personalities Goldberg and Shawn Michaels were among the many who weighed in) and fans posted their exultation over the breakthrough.
Perhaps the only person who wasn't interested in joining the lovefest was Stewart, who groused that "this morning they were celebrating the fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we all are in a state of mourning now" because Earnhardt had finally won.
"It's not a national holiday, guys," the three-time series champion said.
"For me it is," Earnhardt said with a laugh when told of Stewart's comments. "I'm sure his running second wouldn't be a holiday for me, either."
A day earlier, Earnhardt seemed as if he might have been happy with second. He was fast throughout nearly nine hours of practice Thursday and Friday on Michigan's new lightning-fast pavement. But because of concerns about tire degradation, Goodyear and NASCAR made a last-minute change to the left-side tire. In an emergency practice Saturday night, Earnhardt was 17th and unhappy with his car after being unable to run more than 26 laps because of worries about overtaxing his engine. "My car ain't as good as I want it to be, but I can't run more laps," he said. "This ain't cool."
The outlook changed significantly during a caution on lap 11 Sunday after the race began nearly two hours late because of a heavy rain in the early afternoon. Crew chief Steve Letarte brought Earnhardt into the pits and made two significant suspension changes that brought the Impala to life.
Earnhardt restarted in 37th with 183 laps remaining. Within 40 laps, he was in the top five.
"I saved a little in the last 50 laps and ran only as hard as I thought I needed to," Earnhardt said. "At the end of the race, this thing was a rocket. I couldn't slow it down, it was so fast."
Letarte relationship key
It was the latest example of his symbiotic partnership with Letarte, who took over as Earnhardt's crew chief last season after 10 victories and a 2007 runner-up points finish with Gordon. The meticulous Letarte instituted a regimented schedule at the track for Earnhardt, an admitted free spirit who embraced the more structured approach to his job.
"I was very optimistic about the relationship from the beginning," Gordon said recently. "I told Steve, 'You can't treat him like Dale Earnhardt Jr., you have to treat him like a race car driver, figure out what makes him tick and get the most out of him.' Steve has done a great job with working very hard on the personal connection first and then how to understand what (Earnhardt) needs to make the car go faster.
"And Junior might not always understand this, but it takes a very unique person to be his crew chief, because you have to go through a lot. When things aren't going well, you get abused like nobody. When thing are going great, you look like a hero. To be under that kind of scrutiny is not an easy task. Steve does a great job."
Letarte and Earnhardt were a successful pairing from the get-go, making the Chase last season, but there were many near misses. Four of Earnhardt's seven runner-up finishes since his last win had come since last season. The most agonizing loss came when Earnhardt ran out of gas within a half-lap of a victory in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600.
Letarte was more emotional than Earnhardt after Sunday's win, needing to compose himself before a TV interview.
"There've been a lot of close calls," Letarte said. "A lot of seconds. To finally win one, it's off our back. He's done everything I asked him to do. I know he takes a lot of criticism in his career, but I can't see one ounce he deserves from me. He's driven the wheels off every lap."
Said Earnhardt of Letarte: "He's hard to compliment, because he doesn't take it very well, but they can have all the credit. My engineers and Steve make the car go. If this is where we are hurting, they get together and they fix it. Steve is just really sharp. He called a great race. I trust in him to do that every week, and I know he will. He looks out for the entire team and puts great people around himself to be able to do the job right. We have a good group."
Junior: Bigger prizes ahead
Earnhardt said he thought the victory "would be all relief, but it wasn't relief at all. It was all excitement."
It also was affirmation that he belonged on a team with Gordon and Johnson, who have nine championships between them. With the victory, Earnhardt qualified for the Sprint All-Star Race and also made his team eligible for a NASCAR contingency program that awards extra cash to race winners. In the preseason, he fretted he had cost Hendrick at least $1 million by not being on the Winner's Circle plan last season.
In addition to bringing a trophy to a shop that is filled with them, Earnhardt got to carry around a "victory bell" the team awards to winners.
"I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can," Earnhardt said. "It's a big deal for me. I like seeing the smiles on everybody else's face. It's so awesome to see how many other people it affects and how many people are affected. It feels good to be able to bring those guys what they deserve. All the employees will get bonuses from this win."
Earnhardt planned to share in that fun when he returned to his sprawling estate near Mooresville, N.C., though he had no definitive party plans.
"I'll probably lead by example, but I'll probably just see what everybody else does and just kind of jump in the pool if the water is warm," he said. "We will enjoy this and I cannot wait to go home and see my family and my friends. I know that they are dying for me to get there."
There were no predictions, though, of the all-night debauchery that followed Earnhardt around 12 years ago as a rookie who once built a nightclub in his basement that he dubbed "Club E."
"He has come so far personally," Fox analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "He acted like a kid for a long time, but over the last couple of years, I've seen a young man who really has focused on trying to be a winner and focused on trying to win a championship. We all know those opportunities to win championships and races don't last forever, so I think he's really trying to take advantage of where he is now."
Mindful of that, Earnhardt said Sunday night's party wouldn't last into Tuesday when Hendrick does its weekly debriefs with its drivers.
"I don't want to get carried away," said Earnhardt, noting the next race on the schedule is at the Sonoma, Calif., road course where he has struggled. "We have a great thing going. I want to be sharp when we go to the next race. We have got to start talking about the next race. We need to keep our eye on the goal.
"We'll enjoy this, but we are ready for the next opportunity to win one, because this is fun. I feel like we were close, you know, so maybe we can get us a couple (wins)."