Note: This story ran in The Charlotte Observer as part of a package celebrating 2012's memorable moments in sports.
It was a long-anticipated moment of celebration followed by an unexpected reminder that not everyone was happy.
On June 17, Dale Earnhardt Jr. NASCARs most popular driver ended his career-worst 143-race winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series with a convincing victory in the Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.
The elusive win, oddly enough, came at the same track that produced his most recent victory nearly four years previously.
Those last 15 laps were the longest laps ever, Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. I just wanted to do it for my fans theyve stuck behind me for all these years. I know exactly what theyve been thinking about and how long theyve been wanting a victory.
The win almost seemed to be followed by a collective sigh of relief from everyone in NASCAR.
In the minutes after the race, however, it became clear that even in the presence of an enormously popular winner, there was still an unhappy loser.
As the second finisher in the race, Tony Stewart was the first to appear in the media center after the race. He was quickly asked as was anyone in earshot of the media that day what he thought of Earnhardt finally ending his winless streak.
(Its) no different to anybody else that does it, Stewart said matter-of-factly. Its not a national holiday, guys.
There was a brief moment of stunned silence. The victory party was suddenly put on an awkward hold, but not for long. Other drivers, in the media center and in the garage, were quick to offer their congratulations. Even NASCAR President Mike Helton gave Earnhardt a hug in Victory Lane.
The NASCAR world celebrated its most popular representative was again a winner. Jim Utter