Jeff Gordon is correct. Now that Dale Earnhardt Jr has claimed his second Daytona 500, all is right with the world. Now, what on earth has made a 20 race winner, one who has won exactly three races in the past 279 events, all that popular?
A movie script career has as much to do with it as any. The son of a legend who won his first two races in 2000 with the team owner, his dad, joining him in celebration. Then came 2001, his father’s death on the sport’s biggest stage, Junior’s victory in Daytona that summer, his six wins in 2004 including the Daytona 500 to match the Intimidator in just his fifth attempt. Then came the drama and the disappointment of the next decade. His fans, and the driver himself, needing one more flash of sunshine, and ironically it came on a day when the race would go through a six hour rain delay. It came in a race that began with a slant No. 3 leading the way on the pole, its first appearance since that tragic day in 2001. It came as a black sheet of tape left Ryan Newman’s car to find a place on the front grill of Earnhardt’s auto, making it possibly even faster over the final few laps. It came, finally. We long needed a happy ending to the script, and on Sunday we got it.
Earnhardt’s total joy at victory swept along his fans, and maybe a few not part of Junior Nation. Hoots, hugs, and fist pumps for all. Of course, it is just one race, but if you are going to win just one, this is the one to win. For a week, at least, all is right with the world.
Steve Letarte will begin his new career with NBC next season as a Daytona 500 winning crew chief. That has a nice ring to it. The 34-year old leaves an employer he has been with since he was 15 to take a job that will have fewer demands and allows him more time with his wife and two children. In short, he gets to have a life. Now, being known as a season championship crew chief has an even nicer ring to it. To borrow from Robert Frost…
To the broadcast booth he’ll soon leap
But he still has promises yet to keep,
And miles to go before he’ll sleep,
And miles to go before he’ll sleep.
Rick Hendrick had a very good day, as both Six-time and Four-time also managed Top Five finishes. Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, won his duel race, but was first loser when it counted, finishing just behind Junior. Brad Keselowski rounded out the Top Five.
Even the pole sitter had a Top Ten, but the No. 3 had a rather interesting day. It is better to give than receive, and Austin Dillon did his best to do unto others. After leading the first lap, he drifted back. With 55 laps to go, the 23-year old got caught up in the same mess that took out Danica Patrick (40th) and Michael Waltrip (41st). With 38 to go, Dillon spun fellow rookie Kyle Larson into a ten car wreck to end the Target car’s day. With seven left, Dillon got team mate Ryan Newman out of shape and seven more cars needed work. Friends? Who needs ‘em? The last guy who drove that number did not seem to have many of his own in the early going.
If Hamlin was first loser, outside pole sitter Martin Truex Jr was last loser, as his engine blew up 30 laps in. He was gone before the 6 hour rain delay. He could have been home before they got restarted. Clint Bowyer stayed at the track, only to blow up 90 laps after they returned, to wind up 42nd. Sometimes good things do not happen to those who wait.
Larson was already in the midst of an adventure before Dillon mercifully ended his race. He had a right front go down as his car bounced off the wall twice within the opening three laps. Not the start the rookie wanted. Then his right rear went soft. Later, Dillon arrived and Larson finished 38th.
Fuel pump issues left Tony Stewart 35th and hoping his 17th Daytona 500 might be the charm. While such contenders as Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle had Top Tens, Joey Logano (11th), Kevin Harvick (13th), Carl Edwards (17th), Kurt Busch (21st), and Ryan Newman (22nd) are hoping for better things in Phoenix. Kyle Busch won the Friday truck race, was fourth in Saturday’s Nationwide event, but 19th was his fate on Sunday. Then again, a win in Arizona this weekend and all will be forgotten.
Seven years ago my sister and I, and other family members, were in the stands to see Harvick win. On Sunday, she watched the race from the couch with her daughters at her side. They were bored. I mean, even at three and one, the girls know a repeat when they see one. After about ten minutes, so did their mother. Others were not as quick, as FOX covered up their six hour broadcast hole with a replay of the 2013 event. It would appear thousands did not notice the difference, or the fact some drivers were in cars they were not supposed to be in. For the record, the outcome did not change. Jimmie Johnson still won.
A new season has dawned, a familiar face has returned to a familiar place, and all is right with the world. While the fair weather, fickle, big event fans may have wandered off until Talladega, the rest of us have a Sunday date coming up courtesy of Phoenix International Raceway. Qualifying goes Friday night, and that should be something different.