Junior’s 2001 victory still resonates at Daytona

Dale Earnhardt Jr. vividly remembers the moment he realized he

had a legitimate shot at winning NASCAR’s first Cup race at Daytona

International Speedway since his father’s death at the storied

track.

It was a head-spinning, stomach-turning, seat-squirming feeling

at 200 mph, and it hit him right in the middle of the 2001 July

race at Daytona.

”We’d led a lot and we were really fast, and I said, ‘Man,”’

Junior recalled this week. ”That was when it dawned on me that I

might win, that I could win the race. Then I started getting

nervous and anxiety about it. Anytime I get a glimpse of hope that

something is going to go right, I start to freak out. But it all

worked out.”

Indeed, it was a storybook triumph – one that remains one of the

sport’s most memorable moments. Some believe it was simply too good

to be true.

Junior led much of the night, but fell to seventh following a

late caution flag. He took the green flag with six laps remaining,

then regained the lead with moves that seemed more like a movie

than real restrictor-plate racing.

Darting in and out of the pack alone – racing without the

drafting help that is vital at Daytona – it took Earnhardt only a

lap and a half to pass everyone in front of him.

That kind of dominance prompted skeptics to wonder if

Earnhardt’s victory was somehow staged.

”That’s a bunch of crap,” said veteran driver Elliott Sadler,

who finished third that night. ”Us in the sport are not that

stupid. NASCAR has credibility and responsibility that they have to

keep up with, and I promise you, you can ask anyone in this garage

what we go through week in and week out to make sure our cars are

right.”

Earnhardt’s car was darn-near perfect.

It was fast all weekend, especially when the green flag dropped.

He led 116 of 160 laps, not a big surprise since he was equally

quick five months earlier in the Daytona 500. He finished second to

Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip in the season-opening

race, crossing the finish line as his father wrecked behind

them.

The tragedy changed the landscape of the sport, depriving

stock-car racing of its biggest star and bringing safety issues to

the forefront. It also focused much of the attention on Earnhardt

Jr., who struggled to get comfortable in the role of fan favorite

and patriarch.

Junior’s victory in NASCAR’s return to Daytona vaulted him to

superstardom.

”It was one of my favorite wins,” he said. ”Of course, it was

at that moment I was in a really good place emotionally and

personally. It had been a tough year and had been tough on a lot of

people around me, a lot of my family, a lot of my close friends, a

lot of my father’s close friends.

”It was a very difficult time, and I didn’t daydream early. I

didn’t daydream about coming in a winning that race. I just wanted

to come here and race. I just wanted to race, do my job and go to

the next race. I didn’t ever see what happened coming.”

The celebration was equally surprising.

Earnhardt Jr. spun doughnuts in the grass, then climbed out of

his car and jumped into the waiting arms of his crew. He eventually

joined Waltrip atop his Chevrolet and shared a hug that seemed to

last as long as the fireworks and fanfare.

”You can’t script sports,” Waltrip said. ”We have 43 cars out

there, and even if you wanted to script it, you couldn’t. Sometimes

fate intervenes and you get a special moment in time. That night

here, right over there, 10 years ago, was special. And this place

wouldn’t be near as special if you didn’t hate it at times.”

Although Steve Park gave DEI a win the week after Earnhardt’s

death and Kevin Harvick provided Earnhardt’s longtime car owner,

Richard Childress, a victory in Atlanta a month later, winning at

Daytona rendered more closure for family members, friends and

fans.

”I don’t want to put my win on a pedestal among all the great

things that a lot of people did that would have brought a little

closure to the situation,” Junior said. ”It definitely helped me.

I think it helped some people in my family. My dad’s sisters and

brothers had mentioned that it was a really neat moment for them.

It is what it is. We had an awesome car and you couldn’t write a

better story.”

Another victory 10 years later might come close.

But winning at Daytona in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 might

be tougher than ever. The recently repaved track and the tandem

racing it has created have changed the way cars circle NASCAR’s

famed speedway.

And Earnhardt has reluctantly embraced the new ways.

”I’d rather have control of my own destiny and be able to go

out there and race and just do my own work and worry about my own

self,” he said. ”It’s really weird and kind of wrong on some

levels to race that way and to think like you think. You take care

of somebody and you feel this obligation to take care of them and

then worry about having them take care of you and how that makes

them feel.

”It is just different and weird. … If you had a car that (you

could) drive up through there and you were smart about drafting and

knew what you were doing, you could make some cool things

happen.”

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