Jeff Gordon probably put it best in his postrace interview following Sunday’s Daytona 500: “The world is right, right now – Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500,” he said. “That’s a sign this is going to be a great season.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular yet pressured driver, picked a fitting time to end his 55 race drought when he took the checkered flag in NASCAR’s most monumental event on Sunday.
Earnhardt Jr., who finished second in the Great American Race three of the last four years, qualified ninth and led six times for a race high 54 of the 200 laps, including the final 12.
“I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again,” Earnhardt told ESPN in Victory Lane. “And it feels just as great if not better than the first, because of how hard we tried, year after year, running second all them years.”
Earnhardt Jr.’s win was no fluke, either. He’s been knocking on the door since crew chief Steve Letarte joined his team in 2011. During that span, they have had 55 top 10 finishes, including eight second place outings.
This will be the pair’s last season together as Letarte will join NBC for a TV role next year. The two are trying to make the most of their final run.
“‘I’m a little sad, this is going to be my last 500,” Letarte told reporters in the media center after the race. “I’m going to have a lot of those moments this year. … Everyone has a bucket list and you don’t work in racing without having the Daytona 500 on your bucket list.”
Rain stole the show for the bulk of the afternoon, with a near six and a half hour delay.
It’s the fourth time in the last six years where the 500 has been plagued with a lengthy postponement.
The track was finally dry around 8:30 p.m. and the race ended just about three hours later.
Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag on a day where much attention was reverted to his late father and the return of his famed No. 3 racecar. Rookie Austin Dillon, who sat on the pole for Sunday’s race, assumed the number for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. said after the race that he thought about circling his victory lap while holding out three fingers to honor his famed father.
Dillon, who finished ninth, was among the drivers who went to Victory Lane to personally congratulate Earnhardt Jr.
“Junior has been so supportive of me bringing back the 3,” Dillon told ESPN. “I’ve gone to him for a lot of advice lately. I can’t thank him enough. He’s been awesome to me. It made this whole transition a lot easier.”
“If we didn’t have him onboard, it would have definitely been tough to do this,” Dillon said.
Earnhardt Jr. has been long probed from fans and media as to whether or not he’ll ever compete for a Sprint Cup title. With another Harley J. Earl trophy and all but a berth in this fall’s Chase for the Cup, it looks as if he could be a perennial power this season.
At least for now, the NASCAR world is right. Love him or not, it’s good to see Dale Jr. back in Victory Lane.