Ten years has a way changing things. In 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500, his 10th career victory. He looked like he had the world on a string. The win would be the first of six that season, one in which a profanity uttered during a victory celebration cost him money and cost him points. He suggested his fifth win at Talladega wasn’t any big deal because his legendary father won ten at the track.
Sunday night, high on victory, Junior said something about Mooresville, North Carolina burning to the ground. “As soon as I said that, that was probably not the perfect choice of words. I was exploding inside…. you know, that’s the emotion you feel when something like that happens to you. Imagine in your profession the greatest thing that could happen to you. That’s what happened to me tonight. I just couldn’t contain myself.” I think the good folks in Mooresville will give him a pass, and given what this means for NASCAR, the powers that be will let that one go.
Junior Nation, your longsuffering through all those lean years may yet be rewarded. Earnhardt is a man on a mission “We have a great situation here to have something unique. The team is in a perfect position really to capitalize on our final year with Steve Letarte.” There is sufficient reason to believe that Sunday’s victory is just the beginning.
Dale suggests the Daytona 500 win was the culmination of a trend that took hold in late 2013. “Right there at the end of the year we were running so well. To be able to be as fast as we were at Homestead, to finish the season off with such a strong car, almost get a win there, did wonders for our confidence. It obviously showed how we were able to take off at the beginning of the year, get the win.” This is what Earnhardt came to Hendrick Motorsports for. While Joe Gibbs sure looked hot during Speedweeks, HMS has been the gold standard for NASCAR excellence. Not only was Earnhardt holding a pretty wheel Sunday, let’s not forget he got a good push from teammate Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson was no slouch either, finishing fifth.
Since the days of Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt has been through a slew of crew chiefs- from Tony Gibson to Lance McGrew. While Gordon fans were often critical of Letarte during his days as crew chief of the 24, Junior Nation considers him a godsend. There were ups and downs in their first season together, but the disastrous days of running 20th to 25th week after week are but a memory.
Speaking of his friend and teammate Jimmie Johnson, Dale Jr. says “I do feel like as talented as he is, I think I am on the same level. As a driver, you have to feel confident in yourself and believe in yourself. So I think I’d put myself up against anybody in the field.” Until now, this has been the missing ingredient. The desire, the know-how, the commitment has always been there, you have to know those disastrous days of 2009 and 2010 had to wear on a driver who won 15 races in his first five full seasons in the Cup series- not to mention being the progeny of one of the greatest racers ever.
“If you look at how happy I was Sunday after winning that race, you’ll know how bad I want to win, you’ll know how much winning means to me, and you’ll know from now on that there’s no questioning my killer instinct or drive, whatever term you want to use” said Earnhardt. Make no mistake, he has caught the vision of what can be.
That’s the case being made here today. One race does not a championship make, but the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Dale Earnhardt is a long ways removed from crashing with Brian Vickers and finishing 27th in the 2009 edition of the Great American Race. His owner believes in him, his family believes in him, his crew believes in him, and now Junior believes in himself.