NASCAR

The thrill of victory

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr. poses with the Daytona 500 Harley J. Earl trophy.
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Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip — winner of 84 career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races and a three-time champion — serves as lead analyst for NASCAR on FOX. He was selected for induction into the prestigious NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2012. Want more from DW? Become a fan on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

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Well, it’s been a few days from an amazing 2014 Daytona 500. While it's time to head west to Phoenix, our sport and our fans are still basking in the glow of what we all witnessed Sunday evening. In actuality, the entire Speedweeks was packed with thrilling moments across the board.

I have been coming to Daytona for a number of decades and while there definitely some memorable ones, I honestly don’t think I can recall one where the entire Speedweeks was full of fun and excitement as this one was.

It all started in the Sprint Unlimited under the lights with Denny Hamlin again serving notice that his lousy 2013 season is long forgotten. So Denny won the last race of the 2013 season at Homestead and the very first race of the 2014 season at Daytona.

Then we had all the emotion of the return of the No. 3 car. Some were very excited. Some were still very much against it. Young Austin Dillon took it all in stride and then went out in qualifying and put that car on the pole. It was an amazing moment in our sport. The No. 3 hadn’t been on the track since February of 2001 and here it was back for the very first time in February of 2014 starting on the pole.

What a relief that had to be for Richard Childress, Austin and everyone associated with that team. I mean, let's face it: Richard didn’t bring the No. 3 back to fail, but sitting on the pole for our sport's biggest race of the year was probably more than even he could hope for.

So just like a year ago with the first woman to win a pole position for the Daytona 500, the return of the No. 3 and it winning the pole made headlines all over the world. Then last Thursday brought us the excitement of the Duel races being run under the Daytona International Speedway lights for the first time in those races' history.

Denny Hamlin wasted no time in going three for three when he won his Duel race. Then the talk and excitement turned to whether Denny could do something that no one has ever done, and that was win the Daytona 500 which would be a sweep of Speedweeks.

As the 500 week went along, I could just sense this air of anticipation. In talking to the fans, the drivers, the NASCAR officials and even from our NASCAR on FOX crew leading up to last Sunday, there just seemed to be a buzz in the air that we were building towards something really special.

Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race had an amazing finish. Timothy Peters in the No. 17 did an awesome job of putting himself in position to win the race; however, Kyle Busch beat him to the line in a photo-finish.

Just when you were thinking that nothing could top that, well, here came the Nationwide Series race. Redemption was the word of the day. Regan Smith driving the JR Motorsorts Chevrolet won the race in yet another amazing finish. For Regan, it was a sense of relief and redemption for letting last year's race slip through his fingers. This year in almost the identical circumstances to the 2013 race, Regan held on and got to celebrate in Victory Lane with his car owners, Kelley and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt career moments

SUPER STAR

Junior's impact goes well beyond the track. CAREER MOMENTS

Hindsight is always a beautiful thing, but Saturday maybe should have been our clue of how Sunday was going to finish, as well, with the Earnhardt’s celebrating in Victory Lane.

Sunday was simply a fun day. Our NASCAR on FOX pre-race show had different folks in different places. It was interesting that off-air, all of us were talking about how the air seemed filled with excitement. We also knew there was a possibility that the air might also be filled with rain, but everyone was hoping that storm system was going to stay north of us.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. We were only able to get 38 laps in the books before the sky opened and the rains came. The race was red-flagged, the cars brought to pit road, covered up and everyone hoped we’d be back racing before too long. Well, little did we know that “before too long” would equate to a six hour and 22-minute delay.

It was just so interesting to see the transformation from those first 38 laps during the day, to the rest of the race run at night. It was almost like the first 38 laps were a dress rehearsal for the main event. Obviously, the rain washed all the rubber off the track. Racing at night also meant cooler temperatures which equates to more horsepower. It also meant the track was physically cooler, and that equates to a ton of grip for the cars. All that added up to create some incredible racing.

Part of that has to be credited to the sense of urgency that all the drivers felt. The big storm system had moved through, as I mentioned, but there was another system headed towards Daytona, as well. So when they got back to racing Sunday night, there was a sense of urgency because no one knew for sure if the weather would permit the running of the entire race. With that thought, teams had to adjust their strategy and planning with the initial focus of being out front once we reached the halfway point of the race. For you newer fans, once a race reaches the halfway point, it is then considered an official race and can be called at any time, with a winner declared, if bad weather were to return in force.

With all that playing out right before our eyes, I think we saw one of the top two or three Daytona 500 races of all time. I’m not saying that because of who won. I am saying it because of the type of racing we saw after we finally went back to racing.

You saw three- and four-wide racing. You saw drivers making moves at times that simply made your jaw drop. We saw lead changes about every time we blinked. Up at the front of the pack, you’d see the leader move back and forth from one lane to the other doing whatever it took to stay in the lead.

Sure, there was some bumping and grinding. You are going to have crashes like that when you have that many cars racing near 200 miles an hour lap after lap, only inches apart from each other.

The thing I take away from the Daytona 500 this year more than anything else was the thrill of victory. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won 20 NASCAR Sprint Cup races so far in his career. He also won the Daytona 500 10 years ago. Even before all that, he won two NASCAR Nationwide Series championships.

I have never seen him so happy and enjoy a victory so much as I saw Sunday night in Daytona. Too be fair, I guess I would be hard-pressed to remember seeing any winner just as genuinely happy as I saw Dale Jr. I would wager a non-racing fan who just happened to tune in for the Victory Lane celebration might think he was a first-time winner. That’s how special it was to Dale Jr. and how extremely happy he was.

It wasn’t the typical "oh, it was a great win, now we need to focus on Phoenix next weekend” type of attitude. Dale Jr. savored each and every moment of this. When we talked to him in the post-race interview, he flat out told us how special this was and he was taking nothing for granted and was going to enjoy it to the fullest.

Dale Jr. celebrated his victory with the fans, and that’s only appropriate. These are the folks that paid their hard-earned money to buy a ticket and, on top of that, wait out Mother Nature’s six-and-a-half hour thunderstorm. The other thing that struck me was his celebration with his team. He didn’t do the normal high-five with the team. Dale Jr. made it a point to go up and hung each and every member of that team.

That’s a class act right there. Like I always tell you, the driver gets all the accolades and all the glory. What Dale Jr. did was let people on that team know how much Dale Jr. appreciated them, and let them know that he couldn’t have done it without them.

I think that’s a template that every driver should use and learn from. Winning any race in today’s NASCAR is an amazing accomplishment. It’s hard work. Like I always tell you, it’s the truly great ones that make it look easy when it's really not.

I don’t know if another driver could have won that race and still have everyone happy for him, like it was for Dale Earnhardt Jr. The fans, the media and NASCAR as a whole were thrilled for him. Why? It’s because of the Earnhardt name and what Daytona means to them. For him to win Saturday as a car owner and then again Sunday night as a driver is the stuff where Hollywood movies come from.

Dale Jr. showed us no matter how many races or championships you’ve won, when you win a race today, well, you need to enjoy it. You need to savor it. You need to celebrate it and share it. As a race fan, I felt I was a part of it, and shouldn't that be the goal for any professional athlete to give to his or her fans?

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How big was this win to Dale Jr.? Well, he finally joined Twitter to share it with his fans. That win will do so much for he and his team. I said before the season started that with crew chief Steve Letarte leaving at the end of the season to go up to the TV booth, that I expected these two would have a magical season. Well, it sure has kicked off that way.

We head to Phoenix this weekend. Dale Jr. loves that place. With the confidence meter of the No. 88 pegged, there is nothing to say he couldn’t go there and win back-to-back races. Just imagine what that Victory Lane would be like?

With what he accomplished Sunday night in Daytona, Dale Jr. has energized the NASCAR fan base. I’m not talking about simply Junior Nation; I am talking about NASCAR fans across the board. Wins should be celebrated and savored. Dale Jr. showed us what that feels like Sunday night. Even more importantly, he took us with him and shared his pure joy of winning with us. I’ve never seen anything like it but I, for one, was thrilled to be a part of it.

Tagged: Austin Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kasey Kahne, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Regan Smith, Brad Keselowski

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