The hardest thing about journalism these days is the public’s need for instant reaction. A gold medal is won, a life is lost, an Earnhardt resurrected at Daytona and immediately we need to know how to feel, often in 140 characters or less. Analysis, the kind that takes weeks to turn into well-thought out paragraphs and stories falls victim to iPhones, a funny YouTube video and overall Attention Deficit Disorder. Waiting means ignorance; we need to know the answers. It’s now or never.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scored a popular victory in Sunday’s Daytona 500 — perhaps one of the most popular in years.
I start with that simple truth, mere hours removed from Dale Earnhardt, Jr. screaming “WOOOO!!!” in the track’s modern media center because the reality here for everyone connected to NASCAR is not that simple. The impact Earnhardt’s surprise victory has on the sport besides spreading child-like joy for many won’t be measured at 3 a.m. It can’t be defined the next day, as we soak in one of NASCAR’s greatest moments (and as Earnhardt tries to soak up a hangover) or even the day after that. You see, it’s been so long since Sprint Cup’s most popular driver has been capable of producing this type of tidal wave that it’s hard to gauge how high it’ll rise. Old habits die hard, but older athletes are sometimes forgotten, true popularity lost within the myth of what they once were.
But on this day, Earnhardt reminded everyone of what he could still become. Sunday was a display of brilliance for what was unquestionably the sport’s best plate racer; the last 18 laps, of which he led all, were the canvas through which he painted a scintillating second Daytona 500 victory. It’s true Hendrick Motorsports, though teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson made the difference in getting that paint dried and ready for victory lane. As the race unfolded down the stretch, the final chapter of a 10-hour marathon (with a six-hour, 21-minute rain delay squeezed in the middle) all the sport’s heavy hitters had come out to play.
But that’s when Hendrick, in fighting off the competition was at its best. Earnhardt used Johnson and Gordon, content to stay behind him as blockers, building a defense system while retaining the speed necessary to run up front. It was a slow but steady build toward a dream, in which even the driver himself kept thinking the other shoe was going to drop at some point.
“When you’re close enough to the front to win races,” he said, “there’s a lot on the line. You want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly. You realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless people sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on. It’s a heavy weight.”
But on this night, it was a manageable one. For once, the car was underneath him; not a second place machine, as he’d had the past few years. It had the speed to fend off challenges, from Brad Keselowski to Greg Biffle, instead of slot in behind them down the stretch. Under no circumstances this time would that be allowed to happen.
“Tonight, it was all about not giving an inch, not running fifth, not sitting there in fifth place all night and being OK with it,” he continued. “We wanted to be in the lead every lap.”
Of course, that push was made greater Sunday with the fairy tale return of the No. 3, the ghost of Earnhardt’s father straight into the Cup Series landscape. Austin Dillon led the field to green, driving that car and a legion of fans were reminded of a legacy. Under different circumstances, with an unsupportive family, the move would be highly controversial.
Instead? It’s been big-time boost for both the sport, Richard Childress Racing and even Earnhardt himself.
“Junior has been so supportive,” Dillon said after running ninth in his first 500. “I’ve gone to him for a lot of advice. It made this transition a whole lot easier. If we didn’t have him on board, it would have definitely been tough to do this.”
It’s a storyline that takes center stage now, although handled with the humility you’ve come to expect from the Intimidator’s son. Of course, thoughts had to cross Earnhardt’s mind, like millions of NASCAR fans after the win as to what his father would be thinking right now. But that doesn’t mean he had to act on it.
“I thought about holding the three fingers, running down the front straightaway,” he explained. “I didn’t want to bring too much attention to that. I just want Steve [Letarte] and Rick [Hendrick] and the team, everybody to enjoy this experience as they should.”
So instead, the talk was about how Letarte, Hendrick and how they’ve pumped life into a driver who was lifeless. It’s paired with a race that, during its final 162 laps also drilled energy into a Daytona 500 that’s seen a pothole, jet dryer fire and Danica Patrick become its storylines the last few years instead of the racing. Earnhardt’s charge came with three-abreast pack racing, heart-attack style competition in which everyone was fighting like it was the last lap. Restrictor plates still have their faults — you can’t pass alone — but Sunday night, when handled right they produced the type of competition anyone switching through the channels would stop and enjoy.
NASCAR’s biggest race, the sport’s biggest name, victory lane. Could it get any better? We’ll have to wait until Phoenix to find out. But the fact anyone with a microphone was congratulating Earnhardt, from Keselowski to Carl Edwards to Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett, who stopped the post-race presser to bear hug the winner shows how happy people were with the final result.
“I think you see the fans’ reaction,” said owner Rick Hendrick, of the cheers that lasted long after Earnhardt’s donuts at the start/finish line. “We were in primetime. It was good TV. I think it will be good for NASCAR. It’s good for all of us.”
And it was good for Earnhardt Jr., a once-championship contender who hopes to get there again. One Daytona win, as we’ve seen in recent years doesn’t automatically get you there.
But for where Earnhardt has been, where he wants to go and where the sport expected to be is one heck of a start.
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