DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sunday’s Daytona 500 started with the return of the iconic No. 3 on the track for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001.
It ended with the return to prominence of his popular son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In the middle was NASCAR’s longest day that included thunder and lightning, sparks and smoke, laughter and tears.
Early in the race, fans at Daytona International Speedway seemed to embrace the sentimental return of the father’s old car number for Austin Dillon, the grandson of owner Richard Childress.
But the greatest tribute to one of racing’s most important families came 10 hours later, when Earnhardt kept his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet out front for the final 17 laps to win the Great American Race.
It was a perfect ending to one of racing’s most-memorable days.
“All is right in the world now,” Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon said.
The victory came when NASCAR needed a fast start to a new season and in the first race with new rules that make winning an important factor in the championship.
And it came when Earnhardt desperately wanted to vindicate his popularity.
“Well, I think you see the fans’ reaction,” owner Rick Hendrick said. “But Dale’s got a bunch of loyal fans. It’s good for the sport. It was good TV. It was a great race. It doesn’t hurt to have him, the most popular driver, win the biggest race, the Super Bowl of our sport. I think it will be good for NASCAR. It’s good for all of us.”
“I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did,” he said. “Monday is going to be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation.”
Earnhardt didn’t make his move until the final 200 miles. He was 16th when the race was stopped for six hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds while severe storms forced the speedway to evacuate the grandstands.
Engines finally re-fired at 8:33 p.m. It wasn’t long after that when Earnhardt started working to the front.
“As we drove, even as we waited it out, I knew we had enough race car,” Earnhardt said.
He led 54 of the final 70 laps. He had a one-car advantage over Denny Hamlin at the stripe, with Brad Keselowski in third.
Even with lightning flashing in the distance, most of the fans stayed in their seats, reveling in the moment. And Earnhardt carried on the celebration deep into the night.
While it was Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 win – the first coming 10 years earlier – it was just his third victory at Hendrick since joining the team for the 2008 season.
NASCAR made new rules where a victory automatically qualifies a driver for the Chase for the Championship. The new format certainly got off to a favorable start.
With the Dillon’s No. 3 on the pole and Earnhardt Jr. in Victory Lane, it would have been easy for some to be skeptical. Keselowski, however, quickly ended any suggestion the race, which included the longest single-day delay in NASCAR history, was anything but legitimate.
“He has been right there and knocked on the door,” Keselowski said. “He runs restrictor plates as an elite driver and is probably in the top-three. He hasn’t got the win when he probably deserved it a couple times due to a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day.
“I think the great thing about Dale winning today is that I followed him and passed him and did all those other things and I think it was something where this particular race there is no drama or feeling that anyone can legitimately say there was some voodoo magic reason why he won. He earned this in every sense of the form. I think to me, that probably stands out the most.”
By moving to the front for the final 200 miles, Earnhardt stayed out of a lot of late-race trouble. There was a 13-car crash on Lap 145; a 10-car pileup on Lap 163; a seven-car accident on Lap 195 and a six-car crash a quarter-mile from the finish line.
Earnhardt, who had three second-place finishes in the last four 500s, was far from trouble.
“The car has to be something special,” Earnhardt said. “Typically if the car isn’t anything special, you get diced around and guys can make a fool of you and send you on back outside the top five kind of easily.
“But our car was able to battle and fend off guys left and right it seemed at times.”
Now that the son has one more Daytona 500 victory than his famous father, he has a better appreciation for his own accomplishments. He’s carried the weight of the family’s legacy since 2001, and he was grateful to give everyone an opportunity to relish the moment.
“You realize at that moment, especially inside of 20 laps to go, you’re in the top five, you realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it’s a heavy weight.
“It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say you’re the face of the sport, you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.”