For each of the last 14 seasons, many within Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s fanbase—more famously known as "Junior Nation"—have started each season by hoping, praying, even bragging to friends that it will be Junior's year to finally win the Sprint Cup championship.
And for each of those same last 14 seasons, Earnhardt has disappointed.
But with the way Junior won Sunday night's elongated day-to-night, rain-interrupted Daytona 500, one must wonder if 2014 could very well finally be the year that he fulfills his diehard fans' hopes by going all the way.
With the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format introduced three weeks ago, Earnhardt took the first step toward indeed finally fulfilling his fans' hopes with Sunday's win, making him the first driver to automatically qualify for the expanded 16-driver Chase field by virtue of having at least one win in the first 26 pre-Chase races.
But where does Junior go from here?
Does he have the momentum, the cars, the team—hell, does he have what it takes inside—to carry him through the season and to the top spot at the NASCAR Sprint Cup awards banquet in Las Vegas? He certainly believes so, saying via USA Today's Jeff Gluck, "I think it's our time. This is our year. I'm going to fight every week."
Something tells me the third time, his third win since 2006, will indeed be the charm.
Or at least he's headed in the right direction.
The first time Junior fans really got excited over the last seven or eight seasons was in June 2008, when he snapped a two-year losing streak and won at Michigan. Expectations were high that he would go on to win multiple races that season and beyond.
So what happened?
Junior didn't win another race for four years, until 2012, again at Michigan. It was a streak that surpassed 130 straight races where he came up short time after time after time.
Then, when he won the 2012 race—the first and, up until Sunday, the only win he was able to share with crew chief Steve Letarte—Earnhardt again failed to go on a winning streak until Sunday.
But somehow, this win was much different than the previous two in the middle of Michigan's Irish Hills. For one, this was Daytona and the 500, NASCAR's biggest race of the year, its Super Bowl (even though it strangely starts rather than ends the season).
Second, Earnhardt is in a time crunch of sorts. He knows he's losing Letarte at season's end, as Letarte is moving to NBC Sports to become an analyst for NASCAR telecasts beginning in 2015.
Third, Earnhardt will turn 40 this year. Opportunities like Sunday's will become less frequent as time goes on. His skills will start to deteriorate, his reaction time and reflexes will slow and with each passing season, his potential to win that elusive championship will continue to fade.
That's why 2014 is a must-win year for Junior. Each race is a must-win situation. Every time he climbs into that No. 88 Chevrolet, he has to keep one thing foremost in his mind: If he can win the Daytona 500—twice, not just once—he can win any other race on the NASCAR schedule.
Earnhardt moves from Daytona to Phoenix this coming weekend, a place where he used to have a great deal of success earlier in his career but not so much in recent years. With the wave of momentum and confidence he's riding after Sunday's win, there's absolutely no reason why he and the rest of the No. 88 team can't come together to do exactly what they did in Daytona.
For too many years, Earnhardt went from a winner to a perpetual also-ran. Prior to coming to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he won 17 races in eight seasons with the team his late father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (which today is essentially extinct).
But since he joined HMS in 2008, Earnhardt had managed just two wins in six seasons prior to Sunday's triumph in East Central Florida.
That's a mark that is frustrating to him and to the entire HMS organization, his fans and especially NASCAR, which has pinned so much hope and optimism upon Earnhardt's shoulders that he'll be the savior to help end a seven-year skid in at-track attendance and slumping TV ratings.
A Daytona 500 win for Junior is good, but it's also equally good for NASCAR. For if Junior wins, NASCAR wins.
You can bet your last dime that NASCAR chairman Brian France and president Mike Helton are—subtly and quietly, so as to not blatantly show favoritism—ready to become Junior's biggest fans and cheerleaders.
For as Junior goes, so goes NASCAR. And right now, he needs to go and win a lot more in the next 35 races.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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