BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. had finally reached Victory Lane again, ending one of the longest stretches between wins in Sprint Cup history.
He had gone 143 races without finishing first — but not all of those defeats ended in failure. Over the last couple years, Earnhardt has methodically worked his way back among NASCAR's elite, to the point where his victory at Michigan International Speedway seemed almost inevitable.
It really was only a matter of time.
"I feel like we are getting stronger," Earnhardt said. "This year, we have gotten faster throughout the year. We started off pretty quick and we have gotten quicker, and quicker, especially these last couple weeks. So that's been a thrill for me."
Earnhardt's first Cup victory since 2008 came in convincing fashion when he beat Tony Stewart by 5.393 seconds Sunday. When the black Chevrolet with the green No. 88 crossed the finish line, Earnhardt could stop answering questions about when he was going to win again. Now, he's a legitimate contender for the overall series championship.
Earnhardt is second in the points standings and has been consistently impressive all year.
"We have a conference meeting on Tuesday with all of the drivers and crew chiefs and that will be a thrill since we won," Earnhardt said. "But we have got to start talking about the next race. We need to keep our eye on the goal and, like I said, we'll enjoy this, but we are ready for the next opportunity to win one, because this is fun."
It was Earnhardt's 19th Cup victory and his second in 159 starts for Hendrick Motorsports. He had 17 victories in 291 races for Dale Earnhardt Inc.
In 2009, he averaged a 23rd-place finish, but by last year, that average was up to 14.5. Sunday was his 12th top-10 finish in 15 starts this season. He's second to Matt Kenseth in the standings.
The victory came almost exactly four years to the day after his previous win in a Cup race. That also was in Michigan on June 15, 2008. He led for 36 laps a week ago at Pocono but made a late stop for gas instead of trying to stretch the fuel to the end.
On Sunday, it wasn't even close — but Earnhardt was still sweating out the finish, waiting for the other shoe to drop during the final moments of the 200-lap race.
"I was in there just going crazy," he said. "I just knew I was going to come around the next corner and see a piece of metal laying in the racetrack. I just was waiting on something to happen. That was terrifying."
Earnhardt's 143 races between wins was the sixth-longest streak in Sprint Cup history.
"Dale had the fastest car all day," Stewart said. "It's not a national holiday, guys. This morning they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we're all in a state of mourning now, because he's broke that string now, so I don't know what we're all supposed to think."
Like his last victory in Michigan, this one came on Father's Day — fitting for the driver whose father is so revered around NASCAR circles. Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001. "Junior" is now stock-car racing's most popular driver.
"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."
Earnhardt moved past pole winner Marcos Ambrose on lap 70 to take the lead, and although Stewart would lead for a bit, Earnhardt was in front again not long after the race's halfway point.
Earnhardt led on lap 171, after a pitting cycle. With 25 laps remaining, he was ahead by 1.978 seconds. With 10 remaining, he had built a 5.468-second cushion.
The end was almost anticlimactic, and it gave the team a measure of vindication after Earnhardt played it safe at Pocono.
"It just proves to us that our strategy is correct," crew chief Steve Letarte said. "If you bring fast enough racecars, you don't have to get outside your comfort zone too far."
After finally winning, Earnhardt stopped in front of the grandstand and spun his wheels in front of thousands of fans who were on their feet screaming.
Kenseth finished third in the 400-mile race, which included eight cautions for 39 laps and a rain delay of a couple hours at the beginning. After practice and qualifying speeds soared over 200 mph on the newly paved surface at MIS, teams switched left-side tires for the actual race.
Earnhardt seemed agitated after a special practice session Saturday night following the tire switch.
"I was desperate in that last practice to get something to work," he said. "When it ended, I still wasn't really sure if we were where we needed to be. I woke up this morning, just antsy, not knowing how this was going to play out."
It worked out just fine for Earnhardt.
"This is incredible," Earnhardt said. "I just didn't know when it would happen. I knew it was going to happen, just didn't know when."