Matt Crossman, SportsOnEarthe.com
Dale’s Daytona Destiny
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He looked like the Dale Earnhardt Jr. of old. His car rocketed to the front at Daytona International Speedway, leading the pack, fitting into holes other drivers wouldn't see, let alone try to squeeze into. He weaved from the top to the bottom, from the bottom to the top, keeping everybody else behind him. He passed on restarts, he passed low, he passed high, he passed with speed, he passed with cunning.
But he had been there before, out front, late in a race, and failed to close the deal. Five times last year he finished second, and he never won, and only once since 2008 had he visited victory lane. That has eaten at him, gnawed at his insides, especially considering he had finished second in the Daytona 500 three out of the last four years. That's what he was thinking late in Sunday's Daytona 500 when his crew chief, Steve Letarte, keyed the radio and asked if he was having fun.
He didn't say yes.
But he didn't say no, either.
"I'm enjoying particular parts," he said...
Perhaps one of those parts was laps 153 through 159, when Earnhardt Jr. and Greg Biffle traded the lead a whopping 34 times, according to NASCAR's stats guru Mike Forde. Or maybe Earnhardt enjoyed lap 169, when he and Biffle swapped the top spot eight times, all in 2.5 miles.
Or maybe all of that pogo-sticking back and forth got to him. His heart pounding, he thought about the millions of people watching at home, the thousands of waterlogged fans in the stands, the nail-biting masses of Junior Nation, desperate for a win.
"But the entire experience is driving me crazy," he said.
He picked a good word there.
He, his crew chief, team owner Rick Hendrick and NASCAR as a whole went exactly that after Earnhardt Jr. won his second career Daytona 500 a few minutes later. "We're going to burn this (expletive) down," he yelled as he crossed the finish line.
• • •
It was a thrilling end to a strange day at the racetrack, the latest in a stretch of recent weirdness at NASCAR's most famous track. In 2010, a pothole opened up and delayed the Daytona 500 for more than two hours. In the 2012 Daytona 500, Juan Pablo Montoya crashed into a track dryer, which led to a spectacular fire fed by 200 gallons of jet fuel. And earlier this year in Speedweeks, the pace car caught on fire.
Sunday's race was delayed by rain and a tornado warning. NASCAR evacuated the grandstands, and fans staying at the campground inside the track were warned to take cover. Even the monitors in the media center issued a warning about the dangerous weather.
The rain poured then slowed, poured then slowed. During the rain delay, Fox played last year's race, but many fans watching at home mistakenly thought the broadcast was live – including some of six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson's friends. He tweeted that he received congratulatory texts from people who didn't realize they were watching him win last year's race.
The delay gave the day a fidgety air. It's no fun to hurry up and wait after racing at 200 miles per hour. Air Titan, the machine Daytona uses to dry the track, became a trending topic when Tony Stewart's PR staff started riffing about it on Twitter. "Getting closer to green. Two animals of each species currently departing #AirTitan," read one. "The wind is the #AirTitan's breath," read another.
When the rain finally stopped, the garage area looked like a zombie apocalypse based in the world of the movie Cars. Once soaked, now drying crew guys started to drift in at 6:45 p.m., long after the race would have ended without the rain. Grownups walked through puddles that collected an inch deep. Crewmen used leaf blowers to dry off their pit stalls.
Driver Matt Kenseth, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, walked by carrying a banana. Papa John's must have made a fortune – there were pizza boxes everywhere. A crewman from Jeff Gordon's team stood near his hauler with an open box, giving out slices of pepperoni to passersby, regardless of which team they worked for. It was 7 p.m., and most crewmen had been at the track since 7 a.m. Gordon's sponsor is an AARP program called, fittingly, The Drive to End Hunger.
• • •
When the cars returned to the track after the 6-hour, 22-minute rain delay, the track was cool and dry, which makes the cars handle better, which makes drivers take more risks, which makes the racing more exciting. Drivers stacked their cars three across and six deep for lap after lap, which is great (and terrifying) to watch and terrifying (and great) to take part in.
"I never saw a lull in the action," said driver Brad Keselowski, who finished third. "That had to be the hardest raced 500 ever."
In the post-rain portion of the race, it was hard to argue with that. Before the rain, drivers modeled patience, as if they knew the rain was coming and it didn't matter what position they were in because they were going to have to stop for a long time anyway. After the rain, drivers raced as if they thought the event might end any minute and they had to be up front, just in case.
When Fox showed Earnhardt's in-car camera, Junior's eyes darted from his windshield to his mirror and back, watching where he was going and where he's been. He held the wheel tight, his hands packed into gloves featuring a skeleton design, which was appropriate, because this was serious white-knuckle driving.
But racing like that never lasts – something always gives. Drivers either run out of courage or talent, and the result is either a stretch of single file racing or cars rumpled into steaming messes. For long portions of the race, 20 to 24 cars ran within a second of each other, again, which is either breath-taking or stupid or breath-takingly stupid. When the close quarter racing never slowed down, the ugliness turned up, with nine cars crumpled in five cautions over the last 54 laps.
The last one came seconds before Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag, disaster behind him, delirium in front.
• • •
Earnhardt Jr. winning is the most popular possible outcome of the Daytona 500, for his fans, for him, for NASCAR, for everybody. Ask drivers who they would want to win, and after, "me," most of them would say Dale Jr. "The world is right, right now," said Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate and a three-time winner of the Daytona 500.
That's true after any Earnhardt Jr. win, but it's especially true today. His career had fallen apart, his slump so bad he thought his time as a competitive driver was over. But prior to the 2011 season, he was paired with crew chief Steve Letarte, and the two produced three resurgent seasons, although only one win. Earnhardt needed this win, to validate his career resurrection and to cement his confidence.
He entered the season with as much confidence as he has ever had, based on his strong close to last season. Sunday's win opens up the possibility for him to have the best season of his career, or at least since 2004, when he won six races and finished fifth in points. Inside and outside his team, expectations are high for him this year, higher now then they were 24 hours ago.
The win all but guarantees Earnhardt a spot in the Chase, which means he and his team can take all the chances they want to try to tack on more wins. Earnhardt Jr. told a story to illustrate this point. When he was a boy, traveling the NASCAR circuit, he would often run off to the go-kart track with a pocket full of his dad's money. When he knew he was out of money and on the last turn on the track, he'd drive like a maniac, figuring he was leaving anyway, so if he got kicked out, who cares? For the next 25 races, he expects to drive like the go-kart manager might kick him out.
He can do that now, because he trusts his ability. More than most athletes, Earnhardt Jr.'s performance rises and falls with his confidence, in himself, in his cars, in his place in the world. For Earnhardt, the doubt comes from within and always has. When he doesn't believe, in himself or his team, he is a mess, as he was in 2009 and 2010, when he finished 25th and 21st in points, respectively. When he believes, in himself and his team, he is a top-tier talent, which he showed on Sunday.
He appreciates this win more than his other Daytona 500 (2004) because he has been through the wilderness, and he knows he is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He turns 40 in October, and while he says he doesn't feel old, he doesn't have to look far for reminders of his age.
Among full-time drivers, only three have more starts than he does, and many of his competitors were barely in high school when he last won the Daytona 500. He went to a photo shoot recently with Chase Elliott, son of NASCAR legend Bill, who will drive for Earnhardt's Nationwide team. As the photographer took pictures, Earnhardt thought back over his career, how he started with his dad's team, won two championships in the Nationwide Series and then burst onto the Sprint Cup scene, full of the confidence and ignorance of youth.
He was jealous of Elliott for getting to do that now. Earnhardt Jr. wishes he had appreciated what he had more, enjoyed how easy all that was, wishes he had looked around more, savored the moments more because they were all fleeting, and then everything got harder and wasn't nearly so much fun for a long time.
But Sunday night, deep in the Daytona darkness, it all got easy again, even if just for a few hours, as he went crazy and burned that (expletive) down.