Skip to content

With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win, everything is right in the NASCAR world — at least for one day

Feb 24, 2014, 2:23 AM EDT

56th Daytona 500 Getty Images

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – There’s no question NASCAR has faced its share of challenges in recent years.

From falling attendance to slumping TV ratings, and then NASCAR officials trying several ways to right the ship – from new-style cars to the recently announced changes in this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup – things have been tried, some with success, others not and others to be determined.

But for one night, Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway, everything was right in the NASCAR world because its most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., just won the Daytona 500, the sport’s biggest race, it’s Super Bowl.

Four years ago, NASCAR chairman Brian France took an unprecedented step by publicly stating that if it was to thrive again, the sport needed Earnhardt to win races and championships.

It wasn’t a request, it was a plea. If all was right in Junior’s world – and that indeed means winning races and contending for championships — everything would likely be right in NASCAR’s world. France isn’t stupid: as Junior goes, NASCAR goes.

So now that Earnhardt has won his second Daytona 500 – 10 years apart, mind you – could this be not only Earnhardt’s comeback year of sorts, his year to finally win the championship so many have predicted, hoped for and prayed for over the last 15 years, and ultimately be the year NASCAR makes its long awaited comeback?

It sure seems that they’re all intertwined, doesn’t it? When Junior was going good and strong during his years at Dale Earnhardt Inc. from 2000 through 2007, NASCAR was at the height of its popularity.

But when the economy started going south near the end of 2007 and into 2008, it was also the time that Earnhardt made the split from the company his father founded, Dale Earnhardt Inc., and joined Hendrick Motorsports.

Of course, the economy going south and Junior moving on were coincidental, but there is definitely a symbolism and synergy that some NASCAR fans can’t be blamed if they feel those events truly were tied together in some strange fashion.

And now that we’re here in 2014, the economy is improving, unemployment is dropping, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally not only won a race after a 55-race dry spell, he did it in the most dramatic and big fashion, capturing the biggest race of the year – and potentially the biggest race of his career.

Not only is it just one race into the 2014 season and Junior has already clinched a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – 26 races from now – but this could very well be the year that he truly does win that elusive first Cup championship and NASCAR makes the big comeback its officials and fans have hoped for.

Earnhardt won Sunday with arguably the best car in the field, but like a delicious stew, there was so much more that went into it.

There’s the fact crew chief Steve Letarte was atop the pit box for his last Daytona 500. Junior would like nothing more than to send Letarte out a winner before the latter joins NBC as a TV analyst in 2015. He started with Sunday’s win; he hopes to finish his gift to Letarte with the Sprint Cup championship at season’s end.

“If you’re going to win one, this is the one you want to win,” Letarte said. “(Earnhardt) knew how much I wanted to win this one.

“I’m a little said this is going to be my last 500. … Everyone has a bucket list and you don’t work in racing and not have the Daytona 500 on your bucket list. It seems awkward or surreal, but my career defining moment came in my last shot at it.”

There’s the fact Junior will be 40 years old later this year, a kind of unofficial demarcation line that if he doesn’t win a championship by then, the opportunities he’ll have left after he turns the big four-oh will quickly become fewer and fewer with each passing year.

“It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver. It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “When you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering. This brings me a lot of joy. … I don’t know I’ve realized how big a deal it is, but I know I have a lot of fans that are real happy about what we did tonight and can’t wait to go hang around the water cooler and brag to their buddies tomorrow.”

There’s the fact that Junior had finished runner-up in three of the four previous Daytona 500s. As Brad Keselowski said after the race, no other driver likely was more due to win Sunday than Junior.

“Winning is all that matters when it comes to Daytona,” Earnhardt said. “They won’t remember you for running second. I’m grateful to have won it twice now; I was grateful to win it once. In six months, I’ll probably be as urgent to win it as I was with the first.”

There’s also the likelihood that the once-massive Junior nation has dropped in size, fervor and hope over the last several years. With each passing season that Junior didn’t win a championship and was once again an also ran, many of his fans lost interest or belief in him.

Seeing his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson, win six championships in eight years didn’t help matters for Junior. Those were seasons that were in the prime of his racing career, and yet he came away with nothing but a pat on the back and everyone telling him, “Don’t worry, we’ll get it next year.”

After so much frustration, close calls and shortcomings, it couldn’t help but work on Earnhardt’s belief in himself.

But perhaps when he was at his lowest when it came to thinking he could win more races and championships, team owner Rick Hendrick linked Earnhardt with Letarte, and the best driver-crew chief combo that Junior had since Tony Eury Sr. early on in his DEI days began.

Letarte found a way to get inside Earnhardt, to make him believe in himself, to make him believe in his team, to make him believe he could be a winner – even if Junior had only won just one race prior to Sunday with Letarte on the pit box.

All that is a distant memory now.

“When I crossed the finish line, I was relieved I had done it and I did it with the people I was with,” Earnahrdt said. “It’s like I was back.”

Where does Earnhardt go from here? Will the third time be the charm? By that I mean, when he broke his nearly two-year winless streak in 2008 at Michigan, Earnhardt predicted he’d go on a tear and start winning lots of races.

He did the exact opposite, going more than 130 races before finally reaching victory lane again – at Michigan, no less – in 2012.

Now it’s the third time, not a time to strike out but to rather hit a home run.

Will this time be different? Will Junior be able to take his Daytona win and build upon it with several more wins in the next 35 races this season?

Will he finally bookend his season-opening win with a season-ending championship?

All that remains to be seen. But on a day that started at 1 p.m. ET, included a six hour, 22 minute rain delay and ended nearly 11 hours later, in a town that some are already starting to call Dale-tona, everything for at least one day truly was aligned, balanced and right in the NASCAR world.

No less an expert than Jeff Gordon admitted as much.

“Congrats to Junior, the world is right, Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500. That’s a sign the 2014 season is going to be a good one,” said Gordon, who finished third in Sunday’s race.

And if Junior has anything to do with it like the way he did in winning Sunday, NASCAR as a whole will be as much of a beneficiary as he will be.

“I’m pumped up, man,” Earnhardt said. “Trust me, we are going to have a blast this year.”

It’s certainly started out that way.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Latest Posts
  1. Ryan: Juan Pablo Montoya comes full circle at Indianapolis

    May 24, 2015, 7:47 PM EDT

    150524-Juan-Pablo-Montoya Getty Images

    In his second win at the Brickyard, the Team Penske driver delivered a performance that embodies his style.

  2. Rahal once again leads Honda’s charge, banking another top-five in Indy 500

    May 24, 2015, 7:24 PM EDT

    RahalIMSp5 Getty Images

    Once again in 2015, it’s Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing best of Honda’s brigade.

  3. Dixon leads most laps in Indy 500, 84, but ends unrepresentative fourth

    May 24, 2015, 7:12 PM EDT

    DixonIMSStop Getty Images

    A good, but not great day, occurs for Indianapolis 500 polesitter Scott Dixon.

  4. Kimball seizes his opportunity, ends third in Indy 500

    May 24, 2015, 6:30 PM EDT

    CK*3 Getty Images

    Kimball drives from 14th to third, a career-best in the Indianapolis 500.

  5. Montoya’s Indy 500 win extends his IndyCar points lead

    May 24, 2015, 5:30 PM EDT

    150524-Montoya Getty Images

    Montoya extends IndyCar points lead after Indianapolis 500.

  6. Power: “Anywhere else I’d be happy with second. Here, it sucks”

    May 24, 2015, 5:11 PM EDT

    PowerP2 Getty Images

    Power does what he needs in the Indianapolis 500, but comes up short at the finish.

  7. Montoya rallies for second Indianapolis 500 victory (VIDEO)

    May 24, 2015, 3:38 PM EDT

    JPMmilk15 Getty Images

    Montoya completes comeback and wins Indianapolis 500.

  8. Williams endures a “race to forget” in Monaco

    May 24, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT

    (From L) Williams Martini Racing's Brazilian driver Felipe Massa, Lotus F1 Team's French driver  Romain Grosjean and  Williams Martini Racing's Finnish driver Valtteri Bottas at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo on May 24, 2015, during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BORIS HORVAT        (Photo credit should read BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    For the first time since the 2013 Brazilian Grand Prix, Williams fails to score any points as Bottas and Massa struggle to P14 and P15.

  9. Verstappen “feeling fine” after heavy crash (VIDEO)

    May 24, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT

    Verstappen 245 Getty Images

    17-year-old crashes hard in the final stages of the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday.

  10. Dale Coyne Racing crew member injured in frightening pit-lane crash (VIDEO)

    May 24, 2015, 2:28 PM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    Collision in the pits involves three Dale Coyne Racing cars.

  11. Castroneves leads Indy 500 at halfway mark under third round of pit stops

    May 24, 2015, 1:59 PM EDT

    Roger Penske, Helio Castroneves Roger Penske, Helio Castroneves

    Castroneves leads at Lap 100, but Indy 500 thus far dominated by Dixon, Kanaan and Pagenaud.

  12. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff apologizes to Hamilton

    May 24, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT

    Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team's British driver Lewis Hamilton drives at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo on May 24, 2015, during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC        (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    An error on the pit wall cost Hamilton a near-certain victory in Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix.

  13. Hamilton: Impossible to express how I feel after Monaco defeat

    May 24, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT

    Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team's British driver Lewis Hamilton reacts after taking third place  on the podium after the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix on May 24, 2015, at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo. AFP PHOTO / BORIS HORVAT        (Photo credit should read BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    British driver gutted to lose the Monaco Grand Prix following an error by Mercedes on the pit wall.

  14. Karam, Daly out before first lap complete after separate problems in Indy 500

    May 24, 2015, 12:46 PM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    Karam and Daly – two of America’s young hopes – out of Indy 500, while Sato, Briscoe and Tagliani also have issues.

  15. Perez hails “very important” result with P7 in Monaco

    May 24, 2015, 12:30 PM EDT

    Sahara Force India F1 Team's Mexican driver Sergio Perez  during the qualifying session at the Monaco street circuit in Monte-Carlo on May 23, 2015, ahead of the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix. AFP PHOTO / PHILIPPE DESMAZES        (Photo credit should read PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Force India strikes back in Monaco with Perez finishing seventh.

  16. Vettel: Ferrari there when it mattered to cash in on Mercedes’ mistake

    May 24, 2015, 11:43 AM EDT

    MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 24:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari celebrates on the podium after finishing second during the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 24, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) Getty Images

    After running in third for the majority of the Monaco Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel managed to move up to second place thanks to Mercedes’ error with Hamilton in the pits.

  17. Button picks up McLaren’s first points of the season with eighth place finish in Monaco

    May 24, 2015, 10:55 AM EDT

    MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 23:  Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda drives during final practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 23, 2015 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The first points of the new McLaren-Honda era were scored on Sunday as Jenson Button finished eighth, but Fernando Alonso’s retirement slightly dampened the team’s spirits.