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