ONCE IT finally came, the most remarkable thing about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win at Michigan on Sunday—his first Cup victory in more than two years—was how little he actually seemed to need it. Since his ballyhooed move to Hendrick Motorsports at the end of last season, Junior has been one of the fastest and most consistent drivers on the circuit. With 11 top 10 finishes in the year's first 15 races, he's just one short of his total for all of 2007, and his position near the top of the point standings is so secure that he could have finished 31st on Sunday and still kept his hold on third place. Earnhardt, 33, left Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team that his father started, because he wanted to compete for a championship, and that is exactly what he's doing.
Still, there was a palpable sense of relief in the way he and his crew celebrated in Victory Lane. Earnhardt, through a frustrating mix of bad luck, failed strategy and unforced errors, had fallen just short of winning more than a few times during his 76-race drought, and for a time on Sunday the fates seemed to be conspiring against him once again. After running in or near the top five for most of the day, he inherited the lead with four laps left on the two-mile track when the cars in front of him pitted to take on fuel. Dangerously low on gas himself—crew chief Tony Eury Jr. estimated that his driver was six laps short—Junior's chances for victory seemed lost when, a lap from the finish, an accident behind him brought out a caution flag. That forced Earnhardt to turn two more laps as the field lined up for the two-lap overtime sprint known as the green-white-checker finish. He held on for the win, then ran out of gas just a few yards after taking the checkered flag. "We've got beat so many times like this, it feels good to finally get it done," said Earnhardt afterward.
Both he and Eury insist that they never thought much about the winless streak. But the pair's decision to gamble on fuel mileage on Sunday betrayed an acute sense of urgency. "We got fire in us, but it ain't always been an inferno," says Eury. "If we can run top five week-in and week-out, I would be perfectly happy. But we've got a bigger fire now because Rick Hendrick expects us to win every week."
He's not the only one. No other driver in the sport commands a fan base as broad and as passionate as Junior's—and no other driver endures such scrutiny. While he may have been content with his performance this season heading into Sunday's race, his legions felt otherwise. "He won the Bud Shootout and then the Gatorade 150 [both preseason races] at Daytona right off the bat, and we thought we had the monkey off our backs," says Hendrick. "But his fans would ask me every time I'd see them, 'When's Junior going to win?' I felt like I had a gun to my head."
There's little reason to suspect that Earnhardt's hot streak will end anytime soon. He and Eury are getting the most out of the superior resources now available to them at Hendrick. And Earnhardt has so far outperformed teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson this season. "I think I have real potential this year," he says. That's an understatement. More wins—and perhaps a Cup title—seem only a matter of time.
ONLY AT SI.COM Lars Anderson's Cup analysis and Mark Beech's Racing Fan.