Second may be the first loser, but for Dale Earnhardt Jr., finishing second in Sunday’s The Profit on CNBC 500 at Phoenix International Raceway was a continuation of the best season start in his 15-year Sprint Cup career.
After winning his second Daytona 500 last Sunday, Earnhardt in the following days went on a monumental victory lap across the country to celebrate with media and fans across the country.
And while sleep was rare this past week as he jetted from town to town, Earnhardt was wide awake and on top of his game in Sunday’s race.
He could have potentially made it two wins in a row, but Kevin Harvick held him off on the final lap to relegate Junior to runner-up status.
Granted, there are still 34 races left, but a first and second place finish in the first two events, coupled with Earnhardt remaining atop the Sprint Cup standings, bodes well for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver the last 11 years.
That he did well at Phoenix was not exactly a surprise, per se. Earnhardt used to do very well at the one-mile flat track.
In four straight races from 2002 through the spring race in 2005, Earnhardt drove his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 to two wins and two other top-five finishes.
Ironically, when he move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, Junior began a performance nosedive at PIR.
From his first race in 2008 under the Hendrick banner through the end of 2012 – 10 races in total – Earnhardt managed no wins and just three top-10s.
But things began to turn around last year in a big way. In the second race of 2013, he started 21st and finished fifth. In last year’s fall Chase race, the second-to-last race of the season, he started 11th and finished fourth.
And then came Sunday. He started fifth, ran in the top-five almost the entire race and came home with a solid second-place finish.
Is Junior really and truly for real in 2014?
So far, so good, it would appear.
“I hope everybody enjoyed the race,” Earnhardt said. “We were really working out butts of there and giving it everything we had.”
And they most certainly did a good job, indeed.
While some cynics looked at Phoenix as a better measuring stick if Earnhardt is for real after his win at Daytona, next Sunday’s race in Las Vegas may actually be the best measuring stick of all.
Earlier in his career, he excelled on 1.5-mile tracks. But much like the way his early good fortune at PIR morphed to misfortune for several years, such has been the case for Earnhardt over the last few years, as well.
He began to climb out of the void last season. Even though he didn’t win a race in 2013, he did very well on several 1.5-mile or larger tracks: including fifth at Las Vegas, second at Fontana (a 2.0-mile track), 12th at Kentucky and eighth at Atlanta.
But it was in the Chase for the Sprint Cup that Earnhardt took things to a whole other level, especially in the closing stages of the season.
In addition to a sixth-place finish at New Hampshire and runner-up at Dover, he was eighth at Kansas, 15th at Charlotte, second at Talladega, eighth at Martinsville, second at Texas, fourth at Phoenix and third in the season finale at Homestead.
That’s why what Junior has done thus far in the first two races in 2014 isn’t all that much of a surprise in many ways.
He was a win waiting to happen last season, which he finally got a little late last week at Daytona. And other than eventual champion Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt was the most consistent driver during last year’s Chase.
“I think we just got a lot of momentum carried over from last year,” Earnhardt said. “We were running well in the Chase. I think the Chase performance we had got us pretty excited, real happy to look forward to this season.”
And that’s why there was absolutely no reason why he couldn’t pick up in 2014 where he left off in 2013.
And that’s exactly what he has done. He has a great chance to win for the first time at Las Vegas and keep his outstanding start to this season going.
“(Crew chief Steve Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” Earnhardt said. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”
And it certainly helps when you have the best driver in the garage thus far this season behind the wheel.
INDIANAPOLIS – Few drivers in Indy 500 history have been as popular as Tony Kanaan.
Throughout his career at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway that began with his first Indy 500 in 2002, the fans loved his aggressiveness on the track and his engaging personality with the fans.
The Brazilian always got the loudest cheers from the fans during driver introductions before the Indy 500.
Sunday’s 107th Indianapolis 500 would be his last time to walk up the steps for driver introductions. Kanaan announced earlier this year that it would be his final race of his IndyCar career, but not the final race as a race driver.
He will continue to compete in stock cars in Brazil and in Tony Stewart’s summer series known as the “Superstar Racing Experience” – an IROC-type series that competes at legendary short tracks around the country beginning in June.
Kanaan was the extra driver at Arrow McLaren for this year’s Indy 500 joining NTT IndyCar Series regulars Pato O’Ward of Mexico, Felix Rosenqvist of Sweden, and Alexander Rossi of northern California.
He had a sporty ride, the No. 66 Arrow McLaren Chevrolet that paid homage to McLaren’s first Indianapolis 500 victory by the late Mark Donohue for Team Penske in 1972.
Because Kanaan has meant so much to the Indianapolis 500 and the NTT IndyCar Series, the 2013 Indy 500 winner was honored before the start of the race with a special video.
It featured Kanaan sitting in the Grandstand A seats writing a love letter to the fans of this great event. Kanaan narrated the video, reciting the words in the letter and it finished with the driver putting it in an envelope and leaving it at the Yard of Bricks.
Many in the huge crowd of 330,000 fans watched the video on the large screens around the speedway. On the starting grid, Kanaan’s wife, Lauren, who bears a striking resemblance to actress Kate Beckinsale, watched with their four children.
Kanaan’s wife is an Indiana girl who was a high school basketball star in Cambridge City, Indiana.
Kanaan proposed to Lauren in 2010, and after a three-year engagement, they were married in 2013 – the year he won his only Indianapolis 500.
She has been Kanaan’s rock, and this was a moment for the family to share.
After receiving an ovation and the accolades from the crowd, Kanaan walked to his car on the starting grid and exchanged hugs with people who were important in his career.
One of those was Takuma Sato’s engineer at Chip Ganassi Racing, Eric Cowdin.
Kanaan and Cowdin shared a longtime relationship dating all the way back to the Andretti Green Racing days when Kanaan was a series champion in 2004. This combination stayed together when Kanaan moved to KV Racing in 2011, then Chip Ganassi Racing from 2014-2018 followed by two years at AJ Foyt Racing.
Kanaan returned to run the four oval races for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021 in the No. 48 Honda that was shared with seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
In 2022, Johnson ran the full IndyCar Series schedule, and Kanaan drove the No. 1 American Legion entry to a third-place finish in his only IndyCar race of the season.
Kanaan knew that 2023 would be his last Indy 500 and properly prepared himself mentally and emotionally for his long goodbye.
But one could sense the heartfelt love, gratitude, and most of all respect for this tenacious driver in the moments leading up to the start of the race.
“The emotions are just there,” Kanaan said. “I cried 400 times. This guy came to hug me, and I made Rocket (IndyCar Technical Director Kevin Blanch) cry. I mean, that is something.
“Yeah, it was emotional.”
Kanaan started ninth and finished 18th in a race that was very clean for the first two thirds of the race before ending in disjointed fashion with three red flags to stop the race over the final 15 laps.
“Yellows breed yellows and when you are talking about the Indianapolis 500 and a field that is so tough to pass, that happens,” Kanaan said. “It’s the Indy 500. Come on. We’ve got to leave it out there.
“Every red flag, everybody goes, I’m going to pass everybody. It’s tough to pass. It’s the toughest field, the tightest field we ever had here. It was going to happen. We knew it was going to happen.
“I wouldn’t want it any different. We left it all out there. Everybody that was out left it out.”
On the final lap, it was Kanaan battling his boyhood friend from Brazil, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves, for a mid-pack finish.
“Helio and I battling for 15th and 16th on the last lap like we’re going for the lead,” Kanaan said. “It was like, who’s playing pranks with us.
“We both went side by side on the backstretch after the checker and we saluted with each other, and I just told him actually I dropped a tear because of that, and he said, ‘I did, too.’
“We went side by side like twice. A lot of memories came to my mind, and I even said how ironic it is that we started it together and I get to battle him on the last lap of my last race.
“It’s pretty neat. It’s a pretty cool story. He’s a great friend. My reference, a guy that I love and hate a lot throughout my career, and like he just told me — I was coming up here and he just said, who am I going to look on the time sheet when I come into the pits now, because we always said that it didn’t matter if I was — if I was 22nd and he was 23rd, my day was okay. And vice versa.
“It was a good day for me, man. What can I say? We cried on the grid.
“Not the result that we wanted. I went really aggressive on the downforce to start the race. It was wrong. Then I added downforce towards the end of the race, and it was wrong. It was just one of those days.”
After the race was over, Kanaan drove his No. 66 Honda back to the Arrow McLaren pit area and climbed out of the car to cheers of the fans that could see him. Others were focused on Josef Newgarden’s wild celebration after the Team Penske driver had won his first Indianapolis 500.
There were no tears, though, only smiles from Kanaan who closes an IndyCar career with 389 starts, 17 wins including the 2013 Indianapolis 500, 79 podiums, 13 poles, and 4,077 laps led in a 26-year career.
Kanaan came, he raced, and he raced hard.
“That’s what we did, we raced as hard as we could,” Kanaan told NBC Sports.com. “It wasn’t enough.
“The win was the only thing that mattered. If we were second or 16th, we were going to celebrate regardless.
“In a way, being 16th will stop people wondering if I’m going to come back.
“I’m ready to go. I’m ready to enjoy the time with my family, with my team and doing other things as well.”
Kanaan’s face will forever be part of the Borg-Warner Trophy as the winner of the Indianapolis 500.
“I won one and that is there, and it will always be there,” Kanaan said. “It was an awesome day.
“The way this crowd made me feel was unbelievable. I don’t regret a bit.”
Kanaan actually announced the 2020 Indianapolis 500 would be TK’s last ride because he wanted to say goodbye to the fans.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit, the Indianapolis 500 was moved from Memorial Day Weekend to August 23 and because of COVID restrictions, fans were not allowed to attend the Indianapolis 500.
Three years later, Kanaan was finally able to say goodbye to this fans that were part of the largest crowd to see the Indianapolis 500 since the sold-out gathering for 350,000 that attended the 100th running in 2016.
“That’s it, that’s what I wanted, and I got what I wanted,” Kanaan said. “This moment was so special; I don’t want to ever spoil it again.
“We’ve been building and growing this series as much as we can. I’m really glad and proud that I was able to be part of building something big and this year’s race was one of the biggest ones.”
Kanaan walked off pit lane and rejoined his family. He will always be part of the glorious history of the Indianapolis 500 and fans will be talking about Tony Kanaan years from now, not by what he did, but the way he did it.
“This is what it is all about,” Kanaan said on pit lane. “Having kids, be a good person. Even if you don’t win, it’s fine if you don’t, as long as you make a difference.
“Hopefully, I made a difference in this sport.
“I will always be an IndyCar driver. I will always be an Indy 500 winner and I will always make people aware of IndyCar in the way it deserves.”