That enormous sigh of relief you heard just before 6 p.m. Eastern time came from Junior Nation.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver, took his No. 88 car to Victory Lane for the first time in four years Sunday, winning at Michigan International Speedway.  His victory snapped a 143-race drought.  Until now, his last victory came in 2008, also at Michigan.  In that race, he coasted to the checkered flag when the race ended under caution.

But Sunday was different.  Earnhardt led 95 of the 200 laps.  He dominated much of the second half of the race.  When he crossed the finish line, second-place finisher Tony Stewart was nowhere in sight.

Junior has had a solid 2012 season, despite going four years between wins. He’s second in the points behind Matt Kenseth.  But when you’re the sport’s most popular driver, your fans want wins.  Nothing else matters.  For at least one weekend, on a day when the start of the race was delayed nearly two hours due to weather, he’s given his legion of fans exactly what they wished for.

Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the top five.

There were eight cautions.  Kurt Busch, returning to the track following a one-week suspension, probably wishes he hadn’t.  He wiped out twice, and finished 30th.  His brother, Kyle, had engine trouble and finished 34th. There was a big wreck involving Joey Logano, Kasey Kahne and David Gilliland.  Denny Hamlin’s afternoon ended in a ball of fire.

Those are all things Junior’s legion of fans have seen too much of over the past four years.  Now, it’s their turn to party.

Next week, it’s off to the road course in Sonoma, CA.  Yes, they’ll be turning left and right.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his first NASCAR victory in four years

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