DAYTONA BEACH — 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 by his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
And 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 the Daytona International Speedway seemed to embrace the sentimental return of the father’s old car number for Austin Dillon, the grandson of car owner Richard Childress.
But the greatest tribute to one of racing’s most important families came 10 hours later when Earnhardt Jr. 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 in the biggest race came when NASCAR needed a fast start to a new season. It came in the first race of NASCAR’s new rules that makes winning an important factor toward the series championship.
And it came when Earnhardt Jr. desperately wanted to vindicate his popularity.
“Well, I think you see the fans’ reaction,” car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were in prime time. It’s going to be exciting to see what the ratings were tonight.
“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. It’s definitely good for our organization. It takes a little heat off me with his fans.”
His driver agreed.
“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 [Sunday night]. They can’t wait to go to work tomorrow to brag to all their buddies around the water cooler. 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 6 hours, 21 minutes and 40 seconds while several severe storms forced the speedway to evacuate the grandstands. In fact, a pair of tornado warnings prompted the American Red Cross to tell fans to get in their cars, fasten their seat belts and turn on the engines so their airbags could deploy in an emergency.
Engines finally re-fired at 8:33 p.m.
“Made it easier actually to wait knowing we had such a good race car,” Earnhardt said. “Typically when you and the car aren’t on the same page, like I said, it’s just that little bit, you grow concerned about what you need to do to win the race. The slope got steeper, gets steeper with every lap.
“Tonight, you know, as we drove, even as we waited it out, I knew we had enough race car. I was a little bit nervous because the pressure was on me because there was plenty of car to do it.”
Earnhardt led 54 of the final 70 laps. He had a one-car cushion over Denny Hamlin at the stripe, with Brad Keselowski following in third, Gordon in fourth, Jimmie Johnson in fifth and Matt Kenseth in sixth.
Even with lightning flashing in the distance, most of the fans stayed in their seats reveling in the moment.
Earnhardt carried on the celebration deep into the night.
While it was Earnhardt Jr.’s second Daytona 500 win – the last 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.”
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.”