Dale Earnhardt Jr. a title contender

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Now what will we talk about? For four years and almost two full days, it has been 'When will Dale Earnhardt Jr. win again?' Now that he's accomplished that, now that he's ended the national nightmare, what's left?

"A championship, I guess," Jeff Gordon said on Sunday as he left Earnhardt's long-overdue victory celebration at Michigan International Speedway.

That or when will NASCAR's most popular driver win another race? One win after 143 consecutive losses, as good as it made the crowd at MIS feel, as good as it was for the sport, won't be enough for Earnhardt unless he can follow it up with another victory.

And maybe a championship.

But for now let's bask in the moment of something Earnhardt and NASCAR Nation have dreamed about since Earnhardt won a fuel-mileage race here in 2008. Let's let Earnhardt enjoy the smile that was a permanent fixture on his face as he put some demons in his rearview mirror.

Being in the middle of the mob of photographers, reporters, fans, crew members and drivers in Victory Lane was surreal. It was almost as if time stood still.

Nobody could stop smiling.

Nobody wanted to leave.

Shouts of "JUN-yahhhh" reverberated through the fresh Irish Hills air like we haven't heard in a victory celebration in a long time.

"The nation can return to sanity," said Brad Keselowski, one of a string of drivers who stopped by to congratulate Earnhardt.

This was huge in so many ways. It took the burden of losing off Earnhardt's shoulders and opened the floodgates for the possibility of another Earnhardt winning the title again.

"I wouldn't put [the celebration] in the category of his daddy winning the Daytona 500," NASCAR president Mike Helton said of the senior Earnhardt ending his 0-for-19 skid in NASCAR's biggest race in 1998. "But it's right in that kind of category."

Earnhardt was so overjoyed he was almost speechless as he took the checkered flag.

"I don't know what to say," he radioed crew chief Steve Letarte.

Responded Letarte, "We really won it."

Said Earnhardt, "I know you guys have been waiting on that one. I know I have."

The sport has.

That Earnhardt won this race in dominating fashion, leading a race-high 95 laps and beating three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart by a whopping 5.393 seconds, made it even more special.

"Today, we just whooped them pretty good," Earnhardt said.

He didn't back into this like he did four years ago on fuel mileage. He crushed the field.

"Only one way to win, and that's by kicking everybody's ass," five-time champion Jimmie Johnson said as he stopped to congratulate his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

The only thing missing in Victory Lane -- beside a coronation -- was team owner Rick Hendrick. He was home in Charlotte, N.C., but was waiting on the phone of HMS vice president of development Doug Duchardt when Earnhardt pulled in.

"I told him he should have a good excuse for not being here," Earnhardt said. "He better be on a boat in the Keys or something. He said he was at home and they were thrilled to death.

"I had to thank him for sticking with me and getting me back to Victory Lane. He went through hell and high water to get me there, and he should enjoy this."

Actually, Hendrick did make it to the postrace news conference in the form of a bobblehead doll that Letarte happened to have with him.

"I'll pay for that," Letarte said.

Hardly. This was a day Letarte or anybody on the No. 88 team could get away with anything.

Earnhardt was so overwhelmed that he barely knew how to react. At one point in Victory Lane, when somebody wasn't giving him a hug or patting him on the back, he bumped knuckles with Letarte and said softly, "Damn! We won!"

The fans were more verbal with shouts of "HELL YEAH!"

Earnhardt's win made us forget three and a half days of speeds that topped 200 for the first time on a non-plate track, a last-second tire change that forced teams to add another practice on Saturday and a midday storm that delayed this race by two hours.

When the clouds lifted and the sun broke through, Earnhardt was ready to shine as well.

He quickly moved up from his 17th starting position after an early adjustment by Letarte and took the lead for the first time on Lap 70. For most of the rest of the day fans in the grandstands were on their feet, pointing and shouting and praying something crazy wouldn't happen to deny NASCAR's favorite son this celebration.

Other than a few brief challenges by Stewart, Earnhardt had the car to beat the rest of the day. Only crazy nerves about what could go wrong, as it seemingly has every time he has been in this position, stood between him and owning the world.

"At the end of the race that thing was a rocket," Earnhardt said. "I couldn't slow it down it was so fast."

About the only person who wasn't happy about that was Stewart.

"It's not a national holiday, guys," Stewart said. "This morning they were celebrating his fourth anniversary of his last win, so I guess we are all in a state of mourning now because he's broke that streak, so I don't know what we are all supposed to think."

Sorry, Smoke. But in NASCAR this is as close to a national holiday as it gets. There will be Earnhardt fans so hung over on Monday that they probably won't get to work.

Tuesday might be a day off, too.

Even Earnhardt might have a few too many.

"It did for me," Earnhardt said when asked if this felt like a holiday. "I'm sure running second wouldn't be a holiday, either. … It feels good to win. I'll enjoy it, and in a day or two I'll be thirsty for the next one."

But for today, let him enjoy it.

"It's amazing for the sport," Gordon said. "You know it's going to be everywhere. It's going to be headlines and it's going to get a lot of attention -- as it should. I mean, he won."

I had to thank him for sticking with me and getting me back to Victory Lane. He went through hell and high water to get me there, and he should enjoy this.

-- Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Rick Hendrick

And winning meant a lot of things, from giving Earnhardt bonus points for the Chase for the first time -- "so that's neat" -- to guaranteeing a spot in the All-Star Race instead of him relying on the fan vote.

He can't wait to get back to HMS to pull the victory bell, as is tradition at the shop.

"I'm going to ring that damn thing as hard as I can," Earnhardt said. "It's a big deal for me."

But Earnhardt has a lot of unfinished business. He wants to win a few more races before the Chase so he can be a favorite for the championship, as Helton declared he was on the radio.

As Matt Kenseth declared he was in the media center.

"They are definitely a contender," Kenseth said.

Such praise means, as it should, more to Earnhardt than perhaps the win.

"I guess it means I'm an all-right dude when people are happy for you and want to see you do good," Earnhardt said after getting his 19th career win. "I feel like we're getting stronger. I don't know where we stand as far as being a threat to winning the title. That's a great compliment from Matt."

And it likely, as Gordon said, will dominate the conversation now that we don't have that losing streak to talk about anymore.

That's OK with Earnhardt.

Judging from the Victory Lane celebration, it's OK with a lot of people.