2014 Daytona 500: An Earnhardt Is Back on Top

February 24, 2014

From the look on his face shortly after the 55th running of the Daytona 500, it would have been difficult to guess that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is nearing his 40th birthday.

The 11-time recipient of NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver award, who picked up nicknames such as “Junebug” and “Junior” early on in his career, will likely be known as “Dale’s kid” for as long as he puts on a firesuit and straps himself into a racecar.

But for as much as the fans’ perception of Junior will forever keep him young metaphorically, the struggles he has endured over his 16-year Sprint Cup Series career have almost certainly taken their toll.

Before last night’s victory, which marks the second time Earnhardt has won the Great American Race (the other coming in 2004), it had been 55 races since he had seen Victory Lane. Five times he finished runner-up in 2013.

Though tying his near misses back to just last year sort of does a disservice to the greater point. It hasn’t just been a tough last year and a half for Earnhardt; it’s been a tough career.

Imagine being NASCAR’s equivalent to the son of Michael Jordan (though Kyle Petty might have something to say about that). Junior has never shied away from the pressure that comes with performing for the majority of his father’s fans, who changed their allegiance from the No. 3 to the No. 8 when Dale Sr. passed away on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Some might say that Junior hasn’t exactly lived up to the billing for him, though. Sixteen seasons on NASCAR’s top circuit. Zero championships. Just 20 wins.

Then there’s the switching teams saga of 2007, when Junior decided to sign with Hendrick Motorsports rather than continue driving for DEI, the company founded by his father. It was an ugly situation that seemed to pit stepmother against son for the right to his father’s legacy.

In the end, that feud seems small compared to what transpired in the years since. Signing with Hendrick Motorsports was, to once again draw similarities to the NBA, like LeBron James signing with the Miami Heat after failing to win a championship with his hometown Cavaliers. Earnhardt Jr. went to Hendrick Motorsports to do one thing: win a championship.

But unlike James, Earnhardt has yet to cash in on his investment. To make matters worse, the equipment required to do so is definitely available with his new team.

Teammate Jimmie Johnson has won not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…but six championships with Hendrick.

So while it was just one race, both diehard racing fans and new age statistics types alike can agree that last night’s victory was huge for the driver of the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet.

Under the new Sprint Cup Series rules, drivers who win a race during the 26-race “regular season” automatically qualify for the 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff.

“They’re going to make Chase plans now. They’re very flexible in what they can try,” said Denny Hamlin, who finished runner-up to Earnhardt in the race.

Flexibility is one of the things NASCAR hopes will prompt drivers to make more exciting decisions leading up to the chase. At any rate, it should give drivers increased confidence about their chances after a victory.

“We’re going for the jugular this year,” said Earnhardt.

Hopefully that means we can finally see Junior being Junior more often. Because it was pretty damn cool when we saw it at the end of last night.

– K. Becks

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