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
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
Mar 31, 2015, 6:04 PM EDT
Off the Grid Mexico kicks off with episode one of a six-part digital series.
Mar 31, 2015, 4:17 PM EDT
Jann Mardenborough and two spectators were released after this weekend’s VLN crash at the Nurburgring.
Mar 31, 2015, 3:00 PM EDT
Subaru’s Red Bull GRC challenger revealed.
Mar 31, 2015, 1:52 PM EDT
ESM recaps its test from the Prologue at Paul Ricard.
Mar 31, 2015, 12:47 PM EDT
IMS statement comes out after Indiana’s recent religious freedom legislation.
Mar 31, 2015, 11:15 AM EDT
Catching up on the rest of the action from St. Petersburg, with a run through the moments of contact that triggered avoidable contact penalties.
Mar 31, 2015, 10:11 AM EDT
Rolling Stones to play at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Mar 31, 2015, 9:33 AM EDT
Loose debris hit by a car, then goes over wall and hits a fan outside Turn 10 at St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
Hawksworth, Filippi impress on opening outings with their new teams in St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT
IndyCar’s “old guard” reigned in St. Petersburg, as the new manufacturer aero kits debuted.
Mar 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Victory number 70 of the Italian’s remarkable Moto GP career.
Mar 30, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT
However, Williams test driver Susie Wolff believes that women should be reaching F1 in a more organic way.
Mar 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
KVSH’s Bourdais gets result after a consistent drive; KV’s Coletti stars but fades after late race splash-and-dash for fuel.
Mar 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT
Pro Mazda, USF2000, Pirelli World Challenge, SST roundup from St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Chevrolet aero kits dominate on debut at St. Petersburg.
Mar 30, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT
Swedish driver was fighting in the points before spinning off into the gravel on lap three in Malaysia.
Mar 30, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
Wolff defends the decision to fit Lewis Hamilton with hard tires at his final pit stop.
NHRA: Jack Beckman (54 races), Larry Morgan (120 races) snap lengthy winless streaks in 4-Wide Nationals
Mar 29, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT
Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Larry Morgan (Pro Stock) broke lengthy winless streaks in Sunday’s finals of the 4-Wide Nationals in Concord, N.C.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:40 PM EDT
The year-on-year evolution of JPM showcases a driver still getting even better.
Mar 29, 2015, 8:15 PM EDT
Will Power’s brother brings the jokes while live tweeting Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
- Off The Grid Mexico Kicks Off on NBCSports.com (VIDEO) 0
- Spectator injured but in stable condition after being hit by debris at St. Pete race 1
- Experience trumps youth on IndyCar’s opening weekend with aero kits 1
- NHRA: Jack Beckman (54 races), Larry Morgan (120 races) snap lengthy winless streaks in 4-Wide Nationals 2
- Montoya’s evolution evident after statement victory in St. Pete 2
- Montoya ekes out win in St. Petersburg season opener 6
- Emotional Vettel revels in first victory for Ferrari 5