LOS ANGELES, February 24, 2014 – Somewhere up in NASCAR heaven, the mustachioed Intimidator is one proud papa. In one of the greatest — and longest — runnings of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag at Daytona.
No driver is as beloved by fans or as popular with other drivers. No other driver has as much pressure.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. won seven NASCAR championships, tied with Richard Petty for the most of all time. Daddy seemed to win everything except the Daytona 500, finally getting the monkey off of his back in 1998. While Junior is his own man, watching him win this race brought the same good will from racing fans everywhere. Senior celebrated by doing donuts on the track. Junior hugged every person he could find.
On this track, nothing came easy for either father or son. In 2001, both of them were in contention for a win when a crash on the final turn of the final lap took Senior’s life. He was larger than life with his black car and villainous mustache. He left us all at age 49, and many fans contemplated giving up NASCAR altogether before seeking solace in Junior.
In 2004, Junior finally won the race, yet his toughest critics continued to measure him unfavorably compared to his dad. Coming into the 2014 race, Junior had won only one race in the last five years.
Nothing came easy. Junior is now 40 years old. Younger drivers are preparing to replace the older ones and make names for themselves. Not on this day.
Nothing came easy. Bad weather meant a 6 1/2 hour delay. After the restart, it became a wild west shootout. Rival and friend Jeff Gordon was one of several drivers breathing down Earnhardt’s neck.
Nothing came easy. With three laps to go a mysterious object initially thought to be a plastic trash bag became stuck to Junior’s front plate. Junior failed to shake it off, but he did shake off the competition.
When Senior won, he was deliriously incomprehensible in his post-game press conferences. Junior was excitable, but slightly more lucid.
“I got to get my head together, thank the National Guard.”
Daddy was known for his braggadocio backed up by a lifetime of wins. Junior is the earnest Earnhardt, as gracious and humble in this victory as he has been in far too many agonizingly close losses. In the throes of victory, he knew that it meant so much given how much he has been through on and off the track.
“I’ll never take this for granted.”
Neither will racing rans, who saw one of the greatest finishes in racing history end with one of the feel-good stories in all of sports. This was bigger and better than the Academy Awards and the Winter Olympics combined. The final lap was more tension filled and meaningful than any ordinary closing ceremony to any other 2014 entertainment performance or set of games.
As for the rain that delayed the victory, those were tears of joy from Proud Papa Intimidator watching from above. He knew what true racing fans have also known for some time. Even before the 2014 Daytona 500 victory, Junior was already a winner.