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.
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