Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s victory could give NASCAR a boost

Speaking with reporters after Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Michigan, his crew chief, Steve Letarte, was asked whether Letarte was more relieved or excited that Earnhardt’s four-year winless streak was finally over.

“A little of both,” Letarte replied.

NASCAR probably feels the same way now that the immensely popular Earnhardt has ended a string of 143 races in which he failed to reach Victory Lane. Although reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who finished second to Earnhardt on Sunday, said “it’s not a national holiday” that Earnhardt won again, it’s not bad news, either, for stock car racing’s premier series.

As NASCAR’s once-soaring popularity had leveled off in recent years, one of the many theories for the pullback was that Earnhardt’s legion of fans had grown frustrated with not seeing their driver in contention.

This year, though, Earnhardt has been strong in almost all of the 15 races so far. He has 12 top-10 finishes, more than any driver, and he’s second in the Cup title standings, only four points behind leader Matt Kenseth.

Earnhardt’s proven ability to win again, together with his strong title hopes, could give a fresh boost to NASCAR, which is still suffering attendance woes at many tracks and whose television ratings are off about 5% on average this year.

“You know that when Junior wins it’s going to be great for the sport,” said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup champion and Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.

It’s hard to underestimate the popularity of the 37-year-old Earnhardt, son of the late Dale Earnhardt, a revered NASCAR legend who won seven championships.

The younger Earnhardt routinely receives the loudest ovations during prerace driver introductions, and when his No. 88 Chevrolet takes the lead during a race he triggers cheers from the grandstands that can be heard over the roaring cars.

“I know there was a lot of people that were happy today,” Earnhardt said of Junior Nation. “I could tell — I felt the fan base.”

Earnhardt’s previous win also came at Michigan International Speedway in 2008, and that year he earned a berth in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff but finished last among the 12 Chase contenders.

After missing the Chase in 2009 and 2010, Earnhardt made the playoff again last year but finished seventh.

“There were a couple two or three years ago where we were far from competitive,” Earnhardt said. “I was, as a driver.”

During that lull his fans, he added, “wanted to know why we weren’t competitive and they wondered what was missing. But they never doubted me.”

With 19 victories in his career, Earnhardt has not won more than one race in a season since 2004. But his chances for a second one this year are strong, especially in three weeks when the series moves to the high-banked Daytona International Speedway, where he has won twice.

“It feels good to win and I’ll enjoy it,” Earnhardt said after the Michigan race, “and in a day or two I’ll be thirsty for the next one.”