During the last few laps of Sunday's Quicken Loans 400 in Michigan, the No. 88 Chevrolet pulled away from Tony Stewart and the rest of the field. The crowd of more than 100,000 jumped to its feet, and a thunderous cheer erupted, while across the country, grown men cried. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was taking the checkered flag for his first Sprint Cup victory in four years.
Sure, it was just one win on the 36-race schedule, one week in a nine-month season, a few points closer to the top of the Sprint Cup standings.
But it was also so much more. It was the end to the weekly whispers, the constant questions and the endless articles about Earnhardt's 143-race drought.
It's no secret that Dale Earnhardt Junior is NASCAR's favorite son; not for his handsome face, his clever commercials or his guy-you'd-like-to-drink-a-beer-with southern drawl. He is NASCAR's favorite son because he is Dale Earnhardt's son. Even now, more than a decade after his death, the seven-time champion has not loosened his grip on the sport he helped to build.
When the senior Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the racing world mourned; not just for the loss of its brightest star, but also for the family and particularly the soft-spoken son, just beginning to follow in his father's footsteps. Through their grief, Earnhardt nation turned their attention, their loyalty and their expectations to Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The legacy has to be a heavy burden to bear.
Earnhardt's death led to higher safety standards for tracks and teams, but also to an almost impossible standard by which his namesake continues to be measured. Junior has handled the expectations, the questions and at times the criticism as a champion, always thanking his team, his crew and his fans for standing by him through so many tough years.
They stuck by him as he left the team that bore his father's name and took up with former rivals at Hendrick Motorsports. They stuck by him through disappointing seasons, including his 25th-place finish in 2009. Earnhardt nation stayed strong, believing in the name if not always the driver.
But this may be the season that changes everything. Earnhardt Junior has posted a dozen top 10 finishes in 15 races so far this season, his most consistent start in years. As he spun his car around at the finish line at Michigan, you could almost see the proverbial monkey flying off his back. Earnhardt stands just four points out of first, with what even his teammate Jimmy Johnson called a "new confidence." Perhaps now is when everything finally comes together for the return of the Earnhardt family to the ranks of champions.
Was it coincidence that Earnhardt's winning car was painted black (a promotion for the upcoming Batman movie)? Was it coincidence that the streak was broken on the day America honors dads? I think not. Earnhardt Junior honors his dad every day; it's just a lot easier to live up to his name from Victory Lane.
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at email@example.com. Her column appears on Tuesdays.