The Son Also Rises
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 24, 2014 | 3:00 A.M. EST
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - NASCAR arrived at this winter destination remembering the father.
The sport leaves town celebrating the son.
When the caravan of planes, cars and trucks escaped a snowy North Carolina nearly two weeks ago, the sport’s focus centered on the return of the No. 3 car - a number that had been dormant in Sprint Cup since Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Sunday night, Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove with a vigor not often seen, squeezing teammates against the wall, blocking competitors low and racing with an attitude that he was going to take more than he gave.
With side drafting sucking cars together and slowing them, it was evident this week that one needed to be leading on the final lap to have a chance to win. Haunted by three runner-up finishes in the past four Daytona 500s where he had no chance for the win, Earnhardt vowed to lead going into the last lap.
He did. Earnhardt then led the pack back to the finish line, ending the rain-delayed race at Daytona International Speedway nearly 10 hours after it began.
And ending a burden that had grown heavier in the 10 years since he last won a Cup restrictor-plate points race.
Walking into the media center more than an hour after his second Daytona 500 triumph, Earnhardt raised his hands and shouted.
He hadn’t felt this good since his previous win in this race in 2004.
“I’ve been trying to tell people for 10 years what that felt like,’’ he said.
He doesn’t need to tell people how this victory felt because he showed them. That included his first tweet - a selfie with the Harley J. Earl Daytona 500 trophy - to nearly a quarter of a million followers who had been waiting for Earnhardt to embrace social media.
Earnhardt, though, had been focused on his performance instead of Twitter and Facebook.
Overshadowed by Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance in Daytona’s preliminary events and Richard Childress Racing putting the No. 3 car on the pole, Earnhardt and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were not considered favorites by many.
Those Hendrick cars, though, ran near the front much of the race.
“Seems like come Sunday, they pull something out that no one’s ever seen,’’ said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski. “They obviously were faster in the race than they had been throughout the rest of Speedweeks.’’
A stronger car allowed Earnhardt to be a more forceful driver.
“That car that I drove, we got along,’’ he said. “We worked as a unit.’’
Credit crew chief Steve Letarte, who not only has infused Earnhardt with confidence but supplied cars that tapped Earnhardt’s talent and allowed him run near the front more often.
“That car was ready to go,’’ Earnhardt said. “It was just asking for everything that I was giving it. It was awesome.’’
So was the show he and his foes provided. This was not an easy Daytona 500. They never are but this one had additional challenges.
After running 38 laps, rain halted the race for 6 hours, 21 minutes, turning the event into a night race. With a menacing cell of rain showers approaching, drivers displayed an intensity often saved for the final 20 laps. They ran three-wide several rows deep for a number of laps. Even when two-wide, they danced alongside each other, trying to shift the air onto their competitor’s car to get a surge forward without having the same done to them.
“I hated to do some of the things I had to do,’’ Earnhardt said.
That included running teammate Jeff Gordon along the wall to keep him from side drafting Earnhardt.
“That’s what it took,’’ he said.
“I’m excited for him,’’ Gordon said on pit road after finishing fourth. “I can’t wait to get down (to Victory Lane) to give him a big hug. I know what it means to Dale.’’
Before Earnhardt arrived to hug each of his team members in Victory Lane, he enjoyed his ride with the checkered flag in front of the fans.
“I was having the time of my life inside that car,’’ he said. “I know it wasn’t, but it seems like everybody here was cheering.’’
Earnhardt knew to enjoy this ride. He admits parts of his first Daytona 500 win are a blur because he didn’t take the time to savor it.
Adding to this win is that all but assures him a spot in the Chase, allowing the team to take more chances for wins in the next 25 races.
“We’re going for the jugular,’’ Earnhardt said.
What it season this could be for Earnhardt and Letarte, who is leaving to join NBC’s broadcast team next year.
“I got one last year with this guy,’’ Earnhardt said of Letarte, “and we’re going to make it something special.’’
It already is.