With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win, everything is right in the NASCAR world — at least for one day

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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

NHRA Norwalk winners: Blake Alexander, Hagan, Gray, Krawiec

Norwalk winners, from left, Tanner Gray, Eddie Krawiec, Blake Alexander and Matt Hagan. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Blake Alexander captured his first career NHRA Top Fuel win, winning Sunday at the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

Alexander becomes the 105th different winner in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Alexander won the race with a 4.011-second pass at 297.81 mph, defeating Terry McMillen.

“It felt really good,” Alexander said afterward. “I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life. I’ve come close but have lost sponsors, thought I was never going to drive the car again and basically we have gone through everything to climb back to the top.”

Alexander qualified 12th for the event and defeated three of the sport’s heavyweight drivers – Don Schumacher Racing pilots Antron Brown, Tony Schumacher and Leah Pritchett – before entering his second career final round.

In Funny Car, Matt Hagan earned his second event of the season with a run of 4.094 seconds at 288.21 mph over points leader Courtney Force.

It was Hagan’s first win since the season-opening race at Pomona, California.

“We just had a good solid car all weekend,” Hagan said. “We qualified well and went down the race track pretty much every lap.

“It’s been a while since we turned on four win lights but it’s a nitro Funny Car; you never know what you’re going to get.”

Hagan was the No. 3 qualifier and defeated fellow DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Jack Beckman, followed by Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd in the semifinals en route to meeting Force – who had qualified No. 1 – in the final round.

Courtney Force defeated John Smith, Shawn Langdon and her father, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force.

In Pro Stock, young Tanner Gray earned his third win of the season and eighth of his career. Gray covered the quarter-mile in 6.615 seconds at 209.62 mph, defeating two-time Pro Stock champion Erica Enders in the final round.

Gray becomes the only Pro Stock driver to reach the winner’s circle three different times this season.

“This was definitely a huge accomplishment,” Gray said. “We struggled a lot at the beginning of the season.

“We did a lot of testing and couldn’t really see where that hard work was because the results weren’t showing. It feels good to have finally turned a corner and see where all of the hard work has paid off.”

Gray defeated Chris McGaha, Matt Hartford and Drew Skillman prior to his final round win over Enders, who now has one win and four runner-up finishes in the first 12 races of 2018.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec won for the third time in his career at Norwalk with a pass of 6.923 seconds at 195.05 mph, defeating 2016 PSM champ Jerry “The Alligator Farmer” Savoie.

“It was a good one for me,” Krawiec said. “It’s been a good weekend for us. It was a struggle early on trying to dance through the rain drops.

“We were trying to get a handle on a new track and understand what it is we need to do. We were able to get it done and get our bike in the winner’s circle.”

Savoie is now 1-1 in final round appearances, with a win at Charlotte and runner-up Sunday.

The next NHRA national event, which kicks off the second half of the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, takes place July 6-8 at New England Dragway in Epping, N.H.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Blake Alexander; 2. Terry McMillen; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Leah Pritchett; 5. Tony Schumacher; 6. Richie Crampton; 7. Clay Millican; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. Doug Kalitta; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Pat Dakin; 12. Dom Lagana; 13. Kyle Wurtzel; 14. Chris Karamesines; 15. Brittany Force; 16. Luigi Novelli.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Courtney Force; 3. J.R. Todd; 4. John Force; 5. Jack Beckman; 6. Shawn Langdon; 7. Robert Hight; 8. Ron Capps; 9. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 10. Jim Campbell; 11. Dale Creasy Jr.; 12. John Smith; 13. Del Worsham; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Tim Wilkerson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Erica Enders; 3. Drew Skillman; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Jason Line; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Vincent Nobile; 8. Matt Hartford; 9. Greg Anderson; 10. Alex Laughlin; 11. Deric Kramer; 12. Chris McGaha; 13. John Gaydosh Jr; 14. Wally Stroupe; 15. Charlie Westcott Jr.; 16. Kenny Delco.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. LE Tonglet; 4. Angie Smith; 5. Hector Arana Jr; 6. Angelle Sampey; 7. Andrew Hines; 8. Jim Underdahl; 9. Matt Smith; 10. Mark Paquette; 11. Scotty Pollacheck; 12. Cory Reed; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Steve Johnson; 15. Hector Arana; 16. Joey Gladstone.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Blake Alexander, 4.011 seconds, 297.81 mph def. Terry McMillen, 4.155 seconds, 289.20 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.094, 288.21 def. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.615, 209.62 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.923, 195.05 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.071, 175.39.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Richie Crampton, 3.802, 321.81 def. Pat Dakin, 3.834, 318.24; Mike Salinas, 3.884, 268.38 def. Luigi Novelli, 14.101, 30.94; Terry McMillen, 3.816, 324.98 def. Brittany Force, 9.389, 79.86; Clay Millican, 3.759, 332.26 def. Dom Lagana, 3.837, 323.89; Steve Torrence, 3.800, 329.99 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.052, 300.06; Tony Schumacher, 3.807, 327.66 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 3.902, 306.74; Blake Alexander, 3.802, 319.75 def. Antron Brown, 3.808, 326.71; Leah Pritchett, 3.794, 328.94 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.805, 321.73; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.798, 330.15 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 330.31; McMillen, 3.793, 327.11 def. Crampton, 3.810, 320.51; Pritchett, 3.788, 327.74 def. Millican, 3.817, 327.03; Torrence, 4.027, 269.89 def. Salinas, 4.001, 232.07; SEMIFINALS — McMillen, 3.854, 317.57 def. Torrence, 3.929, 302.96; Alexander, 3.799, 329.91 def. Pritchett, 4.185, 254.28; FINAL — Alexander, 4.011, 297.81 def. McMillen, 4.155, 289.20.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.998, 322.58 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Stratus, 4.338, 224.21; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.994, 327.19 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.990, 323.27; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.994, 324.51 def. John Smith, Toyota Camry, 4.373, 248.52; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.034, 315.05 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; John Force, Camaro, 4.066, 320.13 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.140, 311.49; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.047, 319.07 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 9.812, 93.13; J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.016, 316.01 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 5.438, 142.39; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.045, 318.77 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.847, 202.00; QUARTERFINALS — Todd, 4.004, 321.27 def. Capps, 9.588, 81.56; J. Force, 4.085, 319.75 def. Hight, 4.116, 308.07; Hagan, 4.010, 322.27 def. Beckman, 4.022, 321.73; C. Force, 3.971, 325.37 def. Langdon, 4.025, 315.19; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.981, 320.58 def. Todd, 4.031, 321.50; C. Force, 4.007, 323.58 def. J. Force, 4.053, 321.27; FINAL — Hagan, 4.094, 288.21 def. C. Force, 4.220, 227.54.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.632, 208.26 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.614, 208.78; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.607, 209.65 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.603, 209.07; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.608, 209.04 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.648, 208.55; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.616, 208.23 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.632, 208.23; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.626, 208.42 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.765, 205.66; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.751, 207.40 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 6.802, 203.52; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.599, 208.94 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.588, 208.88 def. Charlie Westcott Jr., Ford Mustang, 6.848, 201.85; QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.671, 207.85 def. Nobile, 7.216, 141.86; Gray, 6.600, 209.04 def. Hartford, 15.697, 42.27; Skillman, 6.614, 209.14 def. Line, 6.625, 208.59; Enders, 6.634, 207.56 def. Coughlin, 6.737, 207.50; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.636, 207.59 def. Butner, 6.651, 208.42; Gray, 6.610, 209.30 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; FINAL — Gray, 6.615, 209.62 def. Enders, 6.608, 208.30.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Angie Smith, Buell, 6.932, 192.17 def. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.993, 190.19; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.907, 195.56 def. Mark Paquette, Buell, 6.932, 189.60; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.906, 193.85 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.959, 192.11; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.896, 194.60 def. Hector Arana, Buell, Foul – Red Light; Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.903, 193.29 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.066, 189.71; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.866, 195.39 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.964, 193.71; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.926, 193.32 def. Matt Smith, 6.899, 195.48; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.953, 192.69 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — A. Smith, 6.972, 191.10 def. Underdahl, 7.080, 188.73; Krawiec, 6.889, 193.46 def. Sampey, 6.922, 193.35; Savoie, 6.916, 193.13 def. Hines, 6.991, 192.25; Tonglet, 6.940, 194.58 def. Arana Jr, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.187, 155.10 def. A. Smith, 7.627, 128.07; Krawiec, 6.865, 194.24 def. Tonglet, 6.898, 195.11; FINAL — Krawiec, 6.923, 195.05 def. Savoie, 7.071, 175.39.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 964; 2. Clay Millican, 847; 3. Tony Schumacher, 817; 4. Doug Kalitta, 749; 5. Leah Pritchett, 736; 6. Terry McMillen, 643; 7. Antron Brown, 622; 8. Brittany Force, 594; 9. Mike Salinas, 475; 10. Scott Palmer, 471.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,038; 2. (tie) Jack Beckman, 788; Matt Hagan, 788; 4. Robert Hight, 771; 5. J.R. Todd, 767; 6. Ron Capps, 755; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 637; 8. John Force, 577; 9. Shawn Langdon, 537; 10. Bob Tasca III, 532.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray, 882; 2. Greg Anderson, 856; 3. Erica Enders, 830; 4. Vincent Nobile, 812; 5. Drew Skillman, 751; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 732; 7. Bo Butner, 717; 8. Chris McGaha, 691; 9. Deric Kramer, 659; 10. Jason Line, 628.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, 515; 2. Andrew Hines, 510; 3. LE Tonglet, 440; 4. Jerry Savoie, 389; 5. Hector Arana Jr, 377; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 363; 7. Matt Smith, 355; 8. Angie Smith, 272; 9. Angelle Sampey, 257; 10. Hector Arana, 255.

Follow @JerryBonkowski