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
Apr 23, 2014, 7:00 PM EDT
RPM’s Marcos Ambrose on his start to the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.
Apr 23, 2014, 6:53 PM EDT
John Force is your classic workaholic.
Even when he’s on vacation and supposed to be resting and relaxing and taking things slow, the record-setting 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ never stops working. Force was on vacation with his family last weekend in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, a prelude to his upcoming 65th birthday on May 4.
Apr 23, 2014, 6:00 PM EDT
Swan Racing has restructured its two-car Sprint Cup team, the organization announced Wednesday afternoon. Minority owner Anthony Marlowe has merged his ownership stake in the No. 26 Toyota driven by Sprint Cup rookie Cole Whitt with BK Racing, which now expands to a three-car operation. Meanwhile, the No. 30 team has been sold to John Cohen, owner of XxxTreme Motorsports.
Apr 23, 2014, 5:51 PM EDT
IndyCars confirmed to “roar by the shore” through 2018 after Long Beach City Council meeting.
Healed from heart surgery, 4-time NHRA Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson back in the saddle this weekend in Houston
Apr 23, 2014, 5:11 PM EDT
The vacation of sorts is over for drivers in the Pro Stock class of the NHRA. Things are going to get a lot rougher from here on out. The reason? Former Pro Stock world champ Greg Anderson will make his return from off-season surgery at this weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals at Houston’s Royal Purple Raceway.
Apr 23, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
The next time someone says they doubt that NASCAR drivers are athletes, show them this story. NASCAR Nationwide Series driver and 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne spent the Easter off-weekend competing in a different type of race – and he wound up winning. In just his second career sprint triathlon (also known as a short-distance triathlon that features a 750-meter swim, 20k-bike ride and a 5k-run), Bayne captured the TryCharleston sprint triathlon in South Carolina.
Apr 23, 2014, 3:13 PM EDT
Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is used to beatin’ and bangin’ on a football field. There certainly will be a lot of that in Saturday night’s Toyota Owners 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Richmond International Raceway. And RG III will have a front row seat to all the action as the track announced Wednesday that the ‘Skins’ QB will serve as honorary pace car driver for the race.
Apr 23, 2014, 2:28 PM EDT
NBCSN’s coverage of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series continues this week with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. ET, highlighting more than 15 hours of motorsports coverage this week, which includes Mecum Auctions coverage from Kansas City. NBC Sports Live Extra – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, and tablets – will stream coverage of the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama and Mecum Auctions via “TV Everywhere.”
WATCH LIVE: NASCAR AMERICA at 5 pm ET – Hamlin, recap first 8 races, Richmond nuances, Virginia racing history
Apr 23, 2014, 1:44 PM EDT
As the NASCAR world returns from its Easter break, Wednesday on NASCAR AMERICA we start our in-depth focus on this Saturday’s race at Richmond International Raceway. Leigh Diffey and Wally Dallenbach will host from our Stamford, Conn., studios. Remember to tune in at at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra for online or mobile device.
Apr 23, 2014, 12:30 PM EDT
Privateer GTE team forced to pull out of next FIA WEC over financial issues.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:45 AM EDT
Jacques Villeneuve has a sponsor confirmed for his Indianapolis 500 return.
Apr 23, 2014, 11:21 AM EDT
Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud enjoy drifting rides with 2013 FD champion Michael Essa.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:18 AM EDT
Andretti Autosport brings in a talented road-course ringer, Franck Montagny, for the inaugural GP of Indianapolis.
Apr 23, 2014, 10:05 AM EDT
Kimi Raikkonen owns critics who are questioning his motivation in typical Kimi style.
Apr 23, 2014, 9:41 AM EDT
Compass360′s cars will have “Art Car” design as created by an NF hero.
Apr 22, 2014, 9:19 PM EDT
Mike Conway’s come-from-behind IndyCar win at Long Beach nearly two weeks ago may have been a surprise to some. But it wasn’t a surprise to team owner Ed Carpenter or Conway himself. They both had confidence in each other for a strong run and a high finish – and the win was just an added bonus.
‘Rookie’ Kurt Busch, 1995 champ Jacques Villeneuve, three more to undergo Indy 500 orientation/refresher
Apr 22, 2014, 8:21 PM EDT
It’s been 14 years since Kurt Busch was last called a rookie. And even though Busch has a Sprint Cup championship trophy at home, he’s still a rookie open-wheel driver as far as the Indianapolis 500 is concerned.
Apr 22, 2014, 7:12 PM EDT
Red Bull’s anonymous “Spy” says that their main rivals are getting “rattled and sweating a bit.”
NASCAR AMERICA: Scan All 43 – Kurt Busch breaks winless streak, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon still without wins
Apr 22, 2014, 6:46 PM EDT
On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR AMERICA, Leigh Diffey and Wally Dallenbach took a look back at the March 30th STP 500 at Martinsville Raceway and Kurt Busch’s win, which snapped an 83-race winless streak. We also look back at the rain-postponed Duck Commander 500 at Texas on April 7, as well as how Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who have 10 Sprint Cup championships between them, but neither driver has visited victory lane yet in 2014.
- NHRA drag racing superstar John Force goes on vacation — at a dragstrip, of course 0
- Swan Racing restructures, splits up two-car Sprint Cup operation 0
- It’s official: Redskins QB RG III to drive pace car at Richmond for Saturday’s Sprint Cup race 2
- Raikkonen: Yes, he’s still motivated, otherwise he wouldn’t be here 7
- Red Bull tweaks Mercedes over attempt to increase ‘Fuelgate’ punishment 5
More from NASCAR America
- VIDEO: Vettel ignores team orders, telling team “tough luck” (20)
- Alonso’s doing it again – another year outperforming teammate, equipment (12)
- NASCAR still humming along after last fall’s Richmond scandal (9)
- In re-released interview, Brad Keselowski recalls how Rick Hendrick left him heartbroken (8)
- Maldonado brushes off crash and spin in practice (7)