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NSCS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Begins a New NASCAR Era by Winning the Daytona 500

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Photo Credit: NASCAR via Getty Images

 

By Joseph Wolkin-Associate Editor (@JosephNASCAR)

February 23, 2014

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla– Twitter is going to have a new user this week, and there is a pretty good reason why.┬áDale Earnhardt Jr. is back in victory lane for the first time since Michigan of 2012. It has been a long journey for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet. Now, Earnhardt Jr. has won his second Daytona 500 which have been separated by a decade.

Earnhardt Jr. led 54 laps in one of the most historic Daytona 500’s in NASCAR history. After coming so close, so many times since his 2004 Daytona 500 victory, in which he led 58 laps, Earnhardt Jr. finally sealed the deal. He has finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500’s, showing he has what it takes to win. Besides winning the Daytona 500, it also marks the beginning to the end of his relationship with crew chief, Steve Letarte, who has become like a brother to Earnhardt Jr.

This past week marked the 13th anniversary of the death of his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. There has been much controversy about the No. 3 returning to the track, especially since Austin Dillon sat on the pole for the Daytona 500 on Sunday. However, with Earnhardt Jr.’s victory, the process of accepting the No. 3 on track might just be so much easier now that the most popular driver in the sport showed he can still win races.

“It is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport. A lot better than the first because of finishing second all of those years, trying to figure out what we need to do (to win). We could fight off battles after battles. This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I’ll never take this for granted. We’re in the Chase, and we’re two time Daytona 500 champions,” said Earnhardt in victory lane.


“It was the race of my life.”

When the race finished, Earnhardt Jr. did the ceremonial Polish Victory Lap, made famous by Alan Kulwicki, and showed levels of excitement which have not been seen by him in his entire career. He picked up team owner, Rick Hendrick, on pit road as he entered victory lane. Not only did he show support of his owner, but he gave a hug and thanked each member of his crew a day after saying he would pay for damage for those involved in the final wreck in the Nationwide Series race which he caused.

The race was delayed by rain for approximately six hours and 22 minutes after a series of thunderstorm and tornado warnings hit Daytona Beach. Drivers, crews and fans had to find shelter at a rapid pace after the red flag came out on lap 37.

During the red flag, FOX played the 2013 version of the Daytona 500, but did not put on the screen that it was a replay. In the midst of the commotion at the track, fans began to actually believe they were watching the live race even though FOX stated numerous times that it was last year’s event. Then, several major news outlets, including FOX News, began to congratulate last year’s winner, Jimmie Johnson. Eventually, people realized they were watching a replay. When the race resumed, things were extremely wild.

When the race started, Dillon led the first lap of the race. It was an emotional lap as the No. 3 was back out front at Daytona. However, it was the beginning of a new era.┬áKyle Larson, Dillon’s top competitor for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award, had a horrific day. Larson blew a tire early in the race which truly put him in a deficit early on. He was able to get back onto the lead lap after going two laps down, but Dillon hit him, sending him into multiple cars. Then,was involved in one of the final wrecks with less than 40 laps to go, putting a conclusion to his Daytona 500 debut. He was able to get back onto the lead lap after going two laps down, but Dillon hit him, sending him into multiple cars.

Martin Truex Jr., who was sent to the back of the pack at the beginning of the race, blew an engine early in the race. Tony Stewart, who was coming back from a leg injury, had mechanical issues on lap 95. Stewart had to go to the garage as his Stewart-Haas Racing team attempting to fix the issue. David Ragan also had engine issues, but returned to the track several laps down. Clint Bowyer’s day ended early as he also had engine woes, and walked out of his No. 15 Toyota while the car was parked in his pit stall.

On lap 146, there was a multi-car crash on the front stretch. Danica Patrick slammed into the wall in an area without the SAFER barrier, putting an end to her high hopes entering the Daytona 500. Michael Waltrip, Aric Almirola and Paul Menard’s race for the win also came to an abrupt end in that accident. David Gilliland, Justin Allgaier, Josh Wise and Dillon were all involved in the wreck. Marcos Ambrose’s evening almost ended when he was involved in the accident in which Dillon clipped Larson.

Dillon also got into the back of his teammate, Ryan Newman, late in the race. Brian Scott, Justin Allgaier, Terry Labonte (making his final Daytona 500 start), Parker Kligerman and Cole Whitt each destroyed their race cars.

As rain began to get closer to the track, teams began to gamble on strategy. A lot of teams pitted, yet other teams attempted to save fuel, knowing they were just barely good to go on fuel. While Earnhardt Jr. was fighting off pre-race favorite, Denny Hamlin, for the win, a large wreck occurred behind them. Kyle Busch, Reed Sorenson and Kevin Harvick each suffered major damage along with Carl Edwards, somewhat similar to the 2007 finish of the Daytona 500.

Here are some of the “feel good” headlines after the Daytona 500:

-Sorenson ran up front for the majority of the race. Even though he was collected in the final accident, he was able to show that Tommy Baldwin Racing has what it takes thanks to an alliance with Richard Childress Racing.

-Even though he was surrounded by controversy, Dillon finished inside of the top-10 in his second Daytona 500 start.

-Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hung back throughout the day, but came on strong late in the race to finish in the top-10. He had not recorded his first top-10 in 2013 until Richmond in September last year.

-Casey Mears earns a top-10 finish after going a lap down mid-race, and avoided several major wrecks.

-Landon Cassill finishes 12th after signing a sponsor on Sunday morning.

-Bobby Labonte, who barely raced into the Daytona 500, finished 15th after being lapped early on.

-Terry Labonte might have been involved in an accident, but he finished 20th for Go FAS Racing in his final Daytona 500 start.

-In his first Daytona 500 start, Alex Bowman finishes 23rd even though he lost the draft at one point and was multiple laps down.

 

 

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