Earnhardt's 2nd Daytona win gives reward to loyal fan base
Posted February 24
Daytona Beach, Fla. — After Sunday's Daytona 500, it only seems as if there's suddenly a groundswell to rename this city as Daletona Beach.
Following arguably the biggest win of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Sprint Cup career – his second Daytona 500 victory that comes 10 years after his first – his celebrated army of fans known as Junior Nation can once again hold their heads up high and brag about their favorite driver.
"I know I have a lot of fans that are real happy about what we did tonight and can't wait to go hang around the water cooler and brag to their buddies tomorrow," Earnhardt said Sunday night after taking the checkered flag.
It was not an easy race by any means, from either a logistical or performance standpoint.
First, there was a nearly six-and-a-half hour rain delay. Second, there were four large, multi-car wrecks once the track was dried and racing resumed - not to mention several other drivers whose day or night came to an early end due to mechanical failure.
Any one of those aforementioned wrecks could have brought an abrupt end to Earnhardt's day had he been caught up in the resulting mess, but by fate, good fortune, kismet – or whatever you want to call it – Earnhardt continually found himself in the right place at the right time throughout the race's 201 laps.
He not only was untouchable, he was invincible.
And the best place of all was when he crossed the start-finish line first for only the second time since the start of the 2007 season.
To say this was a big win for Earnhardt is putting it mildly. Rather, it was a must-win in a season that has perhaps the greatest significance ever in Earnhardt's now 15-year Sprint Cup career.
He has so much to win for in 2014:
* He turns 40 this year, knowing that once he crosses that threshold, opportunities to win a championship will become less likely with each passing season as his advancing age catches up with and starts to dull his fine motor skills. He knows he's not as young as he once was. He's outgrown and become too old for his once rock star lifestyle, and that if there was ever a time he needed to be a Sprint Cup champion, 2014 is it.
* He wants to send crew chief Steve Letarte out as a winner. Letarte is leaving Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports at the end of this season to become a TV analyst for NBC telecasts of NASCAR races starting in 2015. Junior gave Letarte perhaps the biggest present of his life with Sunday's win. No matter where Letarte goes from here, he'll always carry the badge of honor of being a Daytona 500 winning crew chief. The only present that could out-do what Earnhardt gave to Letarte with Sunday's win is a championship at season's end.
* More than anything, Earnhardt is perhaps as serious as he's ever been about, well, being serious about living up to all the hopes and expectations placed upon him by his loyal fans. They have waited, hoped, prayed and ultimately wound up disappointed every year since he became a full-time driver on the Sprint Cup circuit in 2000. It's time for Junior to repay his fans' faith and belief in him. It's time for Junior to give back after taking so much when it comes to fan support and the kind of idolizing that has made him the sport's most popular driver for the last 11 years running.
However, we've also seen this movie and watched this rodeo a couple of other times. When he won at Michigan in 2008 after not having won a race for nearly two seasons, his fans expected Earnhardt to go on a huge winning streak. Even Junior himself promised that.
Unfortunately, that promise wound up being hollow, as the next Cup race he would win – and up until Sunday, the only Cup race he had won with Letarte as his crew chief – was in 2012, again at Michigan, snapping a winless streak that surpassed 130 races.
Now, Junior has begun another winning streak. It's at one. Will he be able to get No. 2 this weekend at Phoenix? Or how about in two weeks at Las Vegas? Perhaps Bristol next month? Talladega or Richmond, his two most successful tracks?
Or will Earnhardt once again fall into yet another winless streak that lasts the rest of this season and potentially beyond?
As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
After all the celebrating Sunday and all the bragging and trash talking that'll go on Monday and for the next several days, your millions of loyal fans likely couldn't stand to have their hearts broken yet again for a 16th straight year.
Please tell us, Junior, that you won't fool us a third time.
Follow Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski and catch him at 7:25 a.m. every Friday morning with Mark & Mike on 620 The Buzz.