TMS Media Relations | Feb 25, 2014
It was 13 years ago that shockwaves were sent through the NASCAR world when Dale Earnhardt fatally crashed on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Until Sunday, the No. 3 car had been missing from the Sprint Cup scene as team owner Richard Childress waited for the proper time to bring the famed number back in the series. That was the prominent story leading into the 56th running of the Daytona 500 as Austin Dillon (No. 3 DOW Chevrolet), Childress’ grandson and burgeoning star, led the field in the highly anticipated return of “The Intimidator’s” number for Richard Childress Racing.
After a six-hour delay resulting from a slew of thunderstorms and even a tornado warning, it was no longer the return of the No. 3 that was the story but rather his son Dale Jr. grabbing the headlines. Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s 11-time Most Popular Driver, re-energized the Junior Nation by ending a 55-race winless streak with a thrilling victory in the Daytona 500. He proved strong over the final third of the “Great American Race” by leading 54 of the last 70 laps as he brought home his second career Daytona 500 victory.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said from Victory Lane. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again. And it feels just as good, if not better, than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years, and wondering why and what we needed to do.”
The win for Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet) was a welcome vindication after finishing second three of his last four starts in the Daytona 500. The win also comes in the final year with his crew chief, Steve Letarte. Letarte has served as Earnhardt’s crew chief since 2011, but announced prior to this season that he would be leaving the team after 2014 for a NASCAR analyst position with NBC.
“Dale drove a great race,” Letarte said. “If you’re going to win one, this is the one to win. There is nothing better in the world I can do than give Mr. (Rick) Hendrick (team owner) a Daytona 500 win in my last year.”
Earnhardt Jr. had good company with him for a majority of his run in front with teammate and six-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) pushing him along. Another teammate, Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet), would join the two over the final 10 laps. Both Hendrick Motorsports teammates allowed Earnhardt Jr. to hold his position until a late surge from Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Toyota) and 2012 Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski (No. 2 Miller Lite Ford) gave him a run in the final two-lap shootout following a late caution. With Hamlin in the high line and Keselowski down low, Earnhardt Jr. had to block both over the final lap to secure his victory.
“There’s a lot to be disappointed about, but there’s a lot to be happy about,” Hamlin said after finishing second. “After we came back from the rain, my radios weren’t working so I had to wing it those last 150 laps on my own. With not having a spotter there on that last green-white-checkered, it was just me trying not to wreck anyone, trying not to get in any trouble and trying to spot all six corners by myself. It was still a great run, but I am a little disappointed.”
A jubilant Hendrick Motorsports celebration included an Earnhardt Jr. helmetless victory burnout, Hendrick hitching a ride in Earnhardt Jr.’s window from pit road to Victory Lane and a Gatorade shower from Johnson. An elated Earnhardt Jr. stuck around to answer all of the media’s questions in a post-race press conference that didn’t end until 1:37 a.m. ET. Also resulting from the win is Earnhardt Jr.’s twitter page, @dalejr. The Daytona 500 champion had made a promise that if he won, he would create a twitter account.
“I’m going to try to keep myself in control to be in shape for tomorrow,” Earnhardt Jr. said in reference to the customary New York City media tour on Monday followed by a stop in Austin, Texas, on Tuesday. “But I’m going to have a few beers.”
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