Tennessee hadn’t won a bowl game in going on six years, and wasn’t favored to beat Iowa in Friday’s TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla.
So when NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., flipped the coin to see who was going to get the ball first in Friday’s game, maybe he brought the Volunteers a little good luck they had been missing in recent years. Iowa, Tennessee’s opponent, selected heads for the flip and it came up tails.
So Tennessee won the toss, elected to receive the opening kickoff — and promptly jumped all over the Hawkeyes, who came into the game with the nation’s 18th-ranked defense. The Vols not only scored on that drive, but also on each of the next three to take an insurmountable 28-0 lead in what eventually became a 45-28 victory.
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"We wanted to start fast," Tennessee coach Butch Jones told reporters afterward. "We thought that was critical in this game."
Earnhardt Jr. is all about doing things fast.
The two-time winner of the Daytona 500 not only made multiple media and sponsor appearances related to the TaxSlayer Bowl, but also took time out before performing the coin flip to take over the Twitter account of Daytona International Speedway for a bit to answer some questions from fans.
Earnhardt Jr. and his long-time girlfriend, the lovely Amy Reimann, were in Jacksonville for the TaxSlayer Bowl for good reason. TaxSlayer has been a long-time sponsor and supporter of JR Motorsports, the organization owened by Earnhardt Jr., his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Rick Hendrick that fields teams in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series (formerly the Nationwide Series). Dale Jr. lauded the loyalty of TaxSlayer on Twitter prior to making the trip.
TaxSlayer was a primary sponsor last year for the No. 7 Chevrolet driven by Regan Smith, one of Earnhardt Jr.’s closest friends. And in true NASCAR form, Earnhardt Jr. drove a replica of one of Smith’s cars — albeit with the No. 88 on the side instead — onto the field before flipping the coin Friday.
Now Earnhardt Jr. may have a new friend in Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who may just consider the defending Daytona 500 champion a formidable good-luck charm for his Volunteers.
Friday’s slaying of Iowa was Tennessee’s first postseason victory since beating Wisconsin in the 2008 Outback Bowl, following the 2007 season. It also was the Vols’ first postseason victory since Jones took over as coach for Phillip Fulmer in 2010, and it gave the team a winning record of 7-6 overall for this season.
Jones no doubt will be lobbying for Earnhardt Jr. to flip the coin prior to the kickoff at the inaugural "Battle of Bristol" in September of 2016, when Tennessee will play Virginia Tech in the infield at 160,000-seat Bristol Motor Speedway in an attempt to draw the largest college football crowd in history.