Last week, if you read or listened to coverage of the Daytona 2014 SpeedWeeks events leading up to the “Great American Race,” conversation revolved around the controversial return of the #3 car to Sprint Cup Racing. Throughout his career, Dale Earnhardt, Sr.—the Intimidator=#3=Daytona—owned the crowd. A bronze statue welcomes fans to the Speedway where he died February 18, 2001. It’s impossible to see the #3 without thinking about Earnhardt.
Everyone knew the day was coming… Austin Dillon, grandson of Richard Childress, the owner of NASCAR’s #3, had raced with the 3 and won championships in both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series. No doubt he’s ready to move to Cup racing… but would the #3 car come with him–so soon? For the first time in memory, SpeedWeeks did not revolve around Dale Earnhardt Jr. except maybe a mention that he was fine with Austin Dillon driving #3. Qualifying saw Junior hold the pole through quite a few drivers, but eventually, it was Austin Dillon and the #3 car that captured the pole… a sign, an omen, perhaps?
Pre-race chatter from the analysts gushed with excitement seeing the #3 back on the track at Daytona. Comments ranged from feeling Dale Sr.’s presence to mysterious gusts of wind that may propel Austin Dillon and the 3 car to Victory Lane.
Odd comments—you really think the presence of Dale Sr.’s spirit would actually benefit Dillon and the 3 car when his own son was out there racing in the #88? First really noticed Dale Jr. right after his father died—he finished second not knowing that “the Big One” in his rear view mirror took the life of his father. No one knew as the victory celebrations commenced, but at some point Dale Jr. learned that his father had been injured and transported to the hospital. The images of Junior running from the track, running into the emergency entrance, still in his red Budweiser fire suit…looking like a lost kid trying to find his parent. Just wanted to hug him and tell him everything’s o.k. Except it wasn’t and Junior’s world turned upside down. Thirteen years later, Dale Jr. still looks like that kid as he approaches 40. Through its up and downs, Junior’s legion of fans grew, earning him NASCAR’s “Most Popular Driver” award year-after-year.
At Daytona last Sunday, Dale Jr. received the expected raucous welcome during driver introductions, JuniorNation present in full force. Did feel a bit bad for Austin Dillon when he was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos, not unexpected given the fan emotion tied to that iconic #3. Young Austin Dillon must prove himself worthy of the 3 car. Huge expectations to fulfill.
Oddly, Junior was barely mentioned during the laps covered before the rain delay of rain delays—over six hours of severe thunderstorms and two tornado warnings—even though he was driving well and moving up towards the top five as Dillon shuffled backwards, the 3 car alone not enough to keep him out in front.
Surely was anyone’s race when finally restarted in the cool, damp darkness of night. The grandstands remained full—a bit of rain, wind, lightning and a couple of tornado warnings never deter Daytona fans. Dillon and the #3 drifted to a non-issue as the usual contenders battled for the front. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, among others, jockeyed for the lead, and right there in their midst loomed the #88, clearly a driver with a mission. For the past three out of four years, Junior seemed content with finishing second in the race. But not last Sunday night.
Dale Jr. weaved, drafted, and fought his way to the front of the pack. He took risks, aggressively protecting or regaining the lead. He avoided “The Big One(s)” that took out many drivers, including the #3. It was clear that Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted this win as much as the standing crowd, whose roar could be heard above the sound of the engines. When the #88 crossed the finish line first, JuniorNation celebrated like never before. Junior was that kid again, exuberant in his celebration.
Analysts—some who had seen Dale Jr. grow up hanging with his “Daddy” at the track—praised his grit and determination, driving like…well an Earnhardt at Daytona. The return of the 3 car was a non-issue (for now) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reigned in Daytona. If, as analysts and writers commented, Dale Jr. side-drafted as if he “could see the air”—a skill attributed to his father—perhaps he was determined to reclaim Daytona as rightful headquarters of Earnhardt Nation… or just maybe he had a special co-pilot those final laps?
Either way, at the end of the day, the story revolved around Junior and his father. The next morning, Junior actually joined the Twitter world, tweeting a selfie of himself standing in front of that bronze statue of his father at the entrance to the track. His message? Simple, “Dad’s happy”… along with millions of Earnhardt fans worldwide. All was right in the NASCAR world.
Not a mention of young Austin Dillon and the 3 car for now.