Commentary

Junior used Keselowski's victory to get back in touch with that winning feeling

It took a victory from his Nationwide Series driver to remind Dale Earnhardt Jr. what he was really missing. So where does Sunday's victory rank for Junior's career? Marty Smith writes it's pretty high up there.

Updated: June 25, 2008, 2:24 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

Most folks experience that first-time feeling only once. So when a subsequent instance yields that very same emotion, that inexplicable sheer exhilaration, you know it's a big deal.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. said his victory Sunday at Michigan felt like the first one. Pure joy. Again. Only a chosen few get that chance.

Marty,

Sunday's win was HUGE for Junior, and especially for Junior Nation! AND I GOT TO BE THERE FOR IT! We've been waiting so long, and now we know without a doubt that he'll have a shot at the championship. Now my question: You seem to know him good, so where do you think this win ranks for Junior in his résumé? I put it way up near the top!

-- Haley Bodner, Grand Rapids, Mich.

As do I, Haley. By all means, Sunday's victory for Earnhardt was landmark in that it solidified his transition. Not until he won a points race would the move to Hendrick Motorsports seem truly settled. Now it does. He, NASCAR, several track presidents and many of you probably will disagree with me on a couple of these, but I'd put the Michigan triumph fourth on the list of his career trips to Victory Lane.

5. MBNA Gold 400: Dover International Speedway, Sept. 23, 2001. Earnhardt won the first race run after the Sept. 11 attacks, then took Old Glory for a victory lap. A very patriotic moment. Not a dry eye in the house that day, folks. Later on that winter, we were in New York for the NASCAR banquet, and I met some firefighters. Junior fans to a man, they couldn't stop talking about how much that gesture meant to them, that he would share his moment with all those who sacrificed so much -- some the ultimate sacrifice. That left an indelible impression on me -- it showed me the type of positive impact NASCAR can have in the bigger picture.

4. Lifelock 400: Michigan International Speedway, June 15, 2008. The culmination of a transformation. Earnhardt is a different man these days, comfortable in his skin and confident in his convictions. His confidence will only strengthen as he continues to prosper. The concept of pressure has changed for him. Throughout his career, outside influences such as having the sport's largest fan base and carrying the name of the sport's most beloved star have weighed heavily on him. This year pressure comes from just one place, a place no one else can quantify -- within.

He says he never asked himself "When?" during that 25-month drought, but admits he forgot the joy of winning for a while. Then his Nationwide driver, Brad Keselowski, served up a reminder with a victory in Nashville a week ago.

"We had our little deal back at the shop on Monday and then we went and ate lunch together on Wednesday, and it reminded me of the joy that I had forgotten," Earnhardt said Sunday. "I knew winning is going to make me happy, but I forgot really the look on everybody's face and the look I would see once we won on [crew chief] Tony [Eury] Jr.'s face, [owner] Rick's [Hendrick] face, my sister.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesDale Earnhardt Jr. and crew celebrate an emotional victory in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway only months after his father was killed on the same track.

"And I started to remember, you know, watching Brad win, I'm like, 'Man, I've got to get back to Victory Lane, I miss it so bad.' That was the motivation for me to get back to Victory Lane."

3. The Winston: Lowe's Motor Speedway, May 20, 2000. Junior's favorite victory. Though he'd won a pair of Busch Series titles and Cup race at Texas before that day, he'd never seen his father that proud of him. And because they were in Charlotte, a stone's throw from home, the old man wasn't in a hurry to rush to an airplane. He stayed a while, hugged his son's neck. It was validation.

2. Daytona 500: Daytona International Speedway, Feb. 16, 2004. Obvious reasons. It's the most important race in the sport, and he'd watched it haunt his father for two decades. He conquered it in five years, eliminating any comparisons to his father's plight.

1. Pepsi 400: Daytona International Speedway, July 9, 2001. Less than five months after his father died on the very same surface, Earnhardt catapulted from sixth to first in the waning laps and won one of the most emotional races in NASCAR history. The fan base looked to the Earnhardt kids to help heal its grave sorrow in the wake of Big E's passing. Closure was a long way off yet, but Junior's victory that evening went a long way to forging it.

If you haven't seen that race in a while, go to YouTube and find it. I watched it again Tuesday night, and it made my hair stand on end as if it was yesterday. The call by my man Allen Bestwick was just awesome.

The main criteria for this list are the considerable impacts these victories have had above and beyond the garage -- either nationally or in shaping Earnhardt's personal solace.

Marty the Party,

I would like you to touch on Dale Jr.'s passing the pace car on Sunday. I am sure you are receiving a ton of e-mails on the subject. The last I recall that happening was Matt Kenseth was penalized a lap for passing the pace car trying to get to the pits.

I also think that Robby Gordon was penalized for passing the pace car, but I couldn't find when. But that might just have been for "general Robby Gordonness behavior," which is a penalty, I looked it up.

-- Alan Aldworth, Woodridge, Ill.

I've always understood it to be illegal, Alan, and I found it amusing that Matt Kenseth and Brian Vickers both offered similar (facetious) feedback when asked about it after the race, something to the effect of: All those people up there (the fans in the grandstands) are happy, so I guess it's all right.

Junior understands well that there will be criticism of that development, but he doesn't much care.

"I can understand how it might look, especially if you're not a Dale Jr. fan," Earnhardt said, laughing. "… I know exactly what they are going to say [in reaction].

"But hell with it. My fans are happy, and I'm happy for them. The other half are going to tear this apart on how we won this race, but I got the trophy and I got the points and I got to see my team and my owner and my family tonight happy as they have been in a long time."

Marty,

What kind of makeup are you wearing? One week you look like you've been in the Bahamas for a week, and the next you look like you fell asleep at the North Pole beside a polar bear. You were white as a sheet at Michigan. Were you sick?

-- Jackie Sacks, Los Angeles

Whoa. You are quite perceptive, Jackie. Indeed I did change makeup at Michigan. I don't know if I should be impressed or scared that you noticed. I think I use Cover Girl, but I'm not exactly sure. It's a silver and blue case that I keep in my jacket pocket, and I got a new one at the Eckerd drugstore before I headed out to Detroit.

It was way too light, and that's the last thing I need. I'm already the palest guy on the face of the Earth, and when you add those TV lights in your face that are bright enough to sizzle your retinas out of your head, it only exacerbates the issue. I look like Powder.

Marty,

I love Reed Sorenson, and I just read your story that he's not racing this weekend on the road course race. I'm really upset. Why is he not racing this weekend? I won't even watch.

-- Cristi Servey, Atlanta

It's a no-brainer for Chip Ganassi to put Scott Pruett in the car, Cristi. Really. Sorenson has struggled terribly this season on intermediate tracks, and because of that the No. 41 team is within 29 points of falling outside the top 35 in owners' points. If that happens, your boy will have to show up on Fridays and speed his way into races via qualifying, which would only get him further behind on race setup.

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He told me Tuesday that he never wants to find himself in that situation, and thus worked alongside Ganassi to make this decision.

"I'm not hurt at all. The thing is, what I am hurt by is that we're this far back in points and have to worry about it. That upsets me and Chip both the most," Sorenson said. "Scott should be better at the road course. He should be better than me. It's what he does. It would be a bad idea if we didn't try that."

He's right, and made a good point as to why. Among those battling him for the top 35 are Robby Gordon, a road-racing ace, and Regan Smith, whose No. 01 will be driven by road ringer Ron Fellows this weekend.

I was typically skeptical about these types of decisions until recently, when I saw what Mike Skinner did for A.J. Allmendinger's confidence. Ever since Skinner got in the No. 84 Toyota and helped assess some of the team's shortcomings, Allmendinger has flourished.

It only benefits Sorenson if Pruett can log a top-10 finish and solidifies the No. 41 in the top 35. And rest assured, Pruett will do that. In fact, he may win.

Marty,

What is the deal with Brian Vickers' postrace interview? Did he insinuate that Junior didn't win that race fairly? He said something about being told to hold back. What is the scoop?

-- Sue, Ronceverte, W.Va.

No, no. Vickers was frustrated that NASCAR positioned him behind Mark Martin's No. 8 car for the final restart, after he'd obviously passed Martin two laps prior. Vickers felt he could have contended for the race victory had he started in front of Martin.

NASCAR later admitted to Vickers that it made a scoring mistake. It happens. He has every right to be frustrated. He keeps knocking on the door, though. He'll win soon.

Note: If Jamie McMurray isn't on your fantasy team this weekend, you are crazy. He will win the race.

Marty,

NASCAR trying to silence the drivers is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. First they come out and say before the season they want drivers to be vocal and speak their mind. They start doing that, and NASCAR tells them to shut up. So stupid! How can NASCAR possibly say that? Give us some type of valid reason, Marty!

-- Rick Clark, Bradenton, Fla.

NASCAR's reasoning is simple, Rick: We've provided you boys with the platform to do what you love and make a boatload of money doing it, so shut your pie hole and mash the gas. If all you do is complain, it will turn off the paying public.

But one of the biggest criticisms of NASCAR I hear in the garage is the communication disconnect between the drivers and sanctioning body officials. Some drivers don't feel NASCAR understands what's going on in the cars because it isn't in the cars. Whether that's fair, I don't know. But because of it, the drivers use the most dynamic vehicle to garner a reaction -- the media. Some feel the media is the only vehicle at their disposal.

Kevin Harvick disagreed with that sentiment last weekend and said that any driver, crew chief or owner who is willing to invest the time can go to the NASCAR office and voice his or her complaint. You'll get an answer -- it may not be the answer you want, but it's an answer.

The bottom line is, drivers should be able to say whatever they want to say. They don't work for NASCAR -- just in it.

I understand NASCAR's point. I really do. But candor and varying opinions make this sport great. I'd hate to see that become further diluted by political correctness.

Marty,

I reside in Fort Lauderdale, but I was born and raised outside of Boston. Boston is not known for being a NASCAR town … by any means. The sports that I watched with my Dad growing up were basketball (Celtics), football (Patriots) and baseball (Red Sox). The only thing most people that I grew up with knew about auto racing was the Indy 500. Nobody talked about NASCAR. Period.

Up until '88, I didn't even know what NASCAR was until I read in Sports Illustrated how Richard Petty had a wild crash in Turn 3 at the Daytona 500, I think -- I was 9 going on 10. I didn't even know who Dale Earnhardt was until age 12, and that was from the Goodwrench commercials. I didn't get into NASCAR until three years ago, when the company that I worked for sponsored Jimmy Spencer for a few races in '05.

I went to the Ford 400 … that did it. I was blown away, and you're talking about a kid that saw the Celtics and Lakers face off in Boston Garden during the Finals in '85 and '87 … that was intense. To this day, my parents can't understand how I got into NASCAR, no matter how many times I've explained it. To me, there's no sport like it.

It's amazing. I don't care what anybody says, no matter how many decades someone has watched NASCAR, the competition is fierce. Half the field are superstars, for God's sake. Which leads me to my question: When is Matt Kenseth's contract up with Roush?

Talentwise, he's phenomenal. With the exception of this year, he's the most consistent driver I've seen since getting into the sport and learning about it. I've always felt that he has never had the best equipment to do what he can really do -- specifically, more wins.

If his contract is coming up soon for renewal, do you think he will jump? I mean, he's 37 now, I think.

-- Jeff N., Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

I agree with you regarding Kenseth's talent, Jeff. But man, questioning his equipment, to me, is crazy. That he's had only marginal success early this season is due to having a new crew chief, in my opinion. He was with Robbie Reiser for his entire career before this year. Unless your names are Kyle Busch and Steve Addington, you don't just build chemistry overnight.

Since Kenseth's rookie season in Cup (2000), he's won at least once every year but one. Sixteen wins. A championship. He's finished in the top 10 in nearly half the races he's ever run (151/307), and he's finished among the top five in a quarter of them (82).

His contract runs through the 2010 season. He'll certainly have the opportunity to jump -- he's had the opportunity before, and elite drivers always do -- but I don't see him leaving.

Then again, I'd have said the same thing about Tony Stewart, too.

That's my time. Who knew so many people were privy to Mack & Manco pizza?

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.