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. Roger Penske intends to keep his ‘four aces’ in IndyCar

    Jun 29, 2015, 9:29 PM EDT

    roger penske 2015 getty Getty Images

    The 2015 season is the first time Roger Penske has captained four teams on the IndyCar circuit. And it appears it will be full steam ahead with four teams going forward.

  2. Mario Andretti gets Jay Leno up to speed — and then some

    Jun 29, 2015, 8:53 PM EDT

    jay leno mario andretti getty 2015 Getty Images

    Comedian and former late-night talk show host Jay Leno has spent his career making millions laugh. But recently, the joke was on Leno, so to speak – but in a good way.

  3. Racing legend Parnelli Jones featured in upcoming Indy 500 film

    Jun 29, 2015, 8:24 PM EDT

    parnelli jones Getty Images

    If you’re a big fan of the Indianapolis 500 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, put this on your bucket list for next year.

  4. NHRA: Antron Brown looks to make Top Fuel fireworks this weekend

    Jun 29, 2015, 7:18 PM EDT

    Antron Brown Getty Images

    With five races coming up in the next six weeks, Top Fuel driver Antron Brown knows how crucial this stretch of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing season will be.

  5. Pippa Mann revels in career-best IndyCar finish at Fontana

    Jun 29, 2015, 5:47 PM EDT

    Pippa Mann earned a career-best 13th-place finish in Saturday's MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway. Getty Images

    Finishing 13th in her Dale Coyne Racing Honda, Pippa Mann enjoyed the best showing of her IndyCar career in Saturday’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

  6. After tough recent outings, Jack Hawksworth relishes 10th-place showing at Fontana

    Jun 29, 2015, 3:37 PM EDT

    jack hawksworth 2015 Fontana getty Getty Images

    Jack Hawksworth enjoyed one of his better runs of 2015 in Saturday’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway.

  7. MAVTV 500: Despite being nerve-racking to crazy, drivers glad safety won out

    Jun 29, 2015, 2:20 PM EDT

    briscoe crash fontana 2015 getty Getty Images

    Although it’s been two days since the MAV TV 500, a number of IndyCar drivers are not going to soon forget one of the wildest races the series has seen in a long time.

  8. Senna delighted with fourth in London ePrix after hard battle with Buemi

    Jun 28, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 28:  Bruno Senna of Brazil driving for Mahindra Racing during qualifying at Battersea Park Track on June 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Brazilian driver ends the Formula E season with his best finish of fourth.

  9. VisitFlorida.com Racing survives wet weather for Watkins Glen win

    Jun 28, 2015, 5:33 PM EDT

    VF90win Getty Images

    Westbrook and Valiante take their second win of the year at Watkins Glen.

  10. De Silvestro happy with London ePrix weekend, open to more Formula E starts

    Jun 28, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 28:  Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro during first practice on the second day of the 2015 FIA Formula E Visa London ePrix Championship at Battersea Park Track on June 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The IndyCar driver finished 11th and 12th in two races at the London ePrix this weekend.

  11. Rahal thanks fans, well-wishers on Twitter after overdue win Saturday

    Jun 28, 2015, 3:10 PM EDT

    RahalTwitter1 Getty Images

    Graham Rahal back on Twitter on Sunday after win on Saturday.

  12. Di Grassi: Formula E title lost with “joke disqualification” in Berlin

    Jun 28, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 28:  Championship contender Lucas di Grassi of Brazil during second pracctice on Day two of the 2015 FIA Formula E Visa London ePrix Championship at Battersea Park Track on June 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Brazilian driver remains upbeat despite losing out on the title to bitter rival Nelson Piquet Jr.

  13. Piquet “shocked” by turnaround that led to Formula E championship win

    Jun 28, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    Nextev TCRs Brazilian driver Nelson Piquet JR celebrates at the end of the race after winning the inaugural World Championship title after the 2015 FIA Formula E London ePrix championship at Battersea Park in London, England, on June 28, 2015. AFP PHOTO / IAN KINGTON        (Photo credit should read IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Brazilian driver talks about his rise from the midfield to the title across the course of the inaugural Formula E season.

  14. WATCH: IndyCar’s frantic, thrilling MAVTV 500 to re-air at midnight ET on NBCSN

    Jun 28, 2015, 1:36 PM EDT

    MAVTV500replay Getty Images

    Watch a replay of yesterday’s crazy MAVTV 500 from Auto Club Speedway in Fontana either online via NBC Sports Live Extra, or on NBCSN tonight.

  15. Maldonado keen to keep up points streak at Silverstone

    Jun 28, 2015, 1:15 PM EDT

    Lotus F1 Team's Venezuelan driver Pastor Maldonado competes during the qualifying race at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg on June 20, 2015, ahead of the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix.  AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC        (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images) Getty Images

    Can the Lotus driver pick up some points for the third straight weekend at the British Grand Prix?

  16. Nelson Piquet Jr crowned first ever FIA Formula E champion in thrilling London finale

    Jun 28, 2015, 11:55 AM EDT

    LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 28:  Championship leader Nelson Piquet jr of Brazil driving for the Nextev TCR team during the second practice session on Day two of the 2015 FIA Formula E Visa London ePrix Championship at Battersea Park Track on June 28, 2015 in London, England.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images) Getty Images

    The first ever Formula E championship goes right down to the wire in London, but it is Piquet who is crowned champion.

  17. Leimer hopeful of making F1 debut later this year

    Jun 28, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT

    © Manor Marussia F1 Team © Manor Marussia F1 Team

    2013 GP2 Series champion set for practice run-out at Silverstone as part of his reserve role with the team.

  18. MotoGP: Rossi beats Marquez in Dutch TT after last lap clash at Assen

    Jun 28, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT

    Rossi 286 Getty Images

    Rossi extends his lead at the top of the MotoGP championship standings with Dutch TT victory.

  19. Sarrazin takes surprise pole in wet London ePrix qualifying

    Jun 28, 2015, 8:03 AM EDT

    © FIA Formula E © FIA Formula E

    Wet qualifying shakes up the grid ahead of the season finale on Sunday afternoon in London.

  20. DiZinno: IndyCar’s Double-Edged Sword in Fontana

    Jun 28, 2015, 12:12 AM EDT

    DiZacsOpEd Getty Images

    MotorSportsTalk’s Tony DiZinno reflects on one of IndyCar’s most dramatic days in recent memory.