It was July 2001 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still grieving. Five months earlier, the loss of his father at Daytona had captivated a nation while throwing the sport of stock car racing into chaos. NASCAR’s most marketable name, Dale Earnhardt, had been killed in the final two corners of its biggest race.
The healing process from that moment was long. It was difficult. So many still searched for answers as the sport returned to Daytona.
On that special Saturday night, the first weekend in July Earnhardt Jr. came back. He had to face the fear of turn 3, drive by it countless times and remember the nightmare he lived daily. Earnhardt Jr. was still finding his footing.
That 2001 July win, in front of a sold-out crowd of screaming fans at Daytona is one of those major moments that catapulted NASCAR onto a national stage. Earnhardt Jr., in one fell swoop inherited another chunk of his father’s popularity along with the massive expectations that, at times, would haunt him through a career that to this point has never produced a championship.
Now, 16 years later NASCAR is in need of another Earnhardt lightning rod moment. The sport has suffered through sagging viewership, attendance, and interest for over a decade. Earnhardt’s pending retirement is poised to steepen the decline unless fans can be reminded the future is bright.
A win here Saturday, Earnhardt’s final (most likely) Daytona Cup race would be popular, not just in NASCAR but also across the country. It would put the 42-year-old in the playoffs one last time, rekindling hope for a title that has long eluded him.
It would also heal Earnhardt in a different way. After missing half of last year with post-concussion syndrome, it would give him a victory to hang his hat on. While so many simply said “retire” at the end of last year, he’d have a trophy to show them for all his rehabilitation and effort to still give it one last season in the No. 88.
Earnhardt needs a win. NASCAR needs the Earnhardts. There’s no better place for them to have one last dance than Daytona tomorrow night.
Coke Zero 400
Time: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Daytona International Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Stewart-Haas Racing
Kevin Harvickgot off the schneid last weekend with his first victory of 2017. But Harvick’s solid performance, a combination of track position, pit strategy, and superior handling wasn’t the only Stewart-Haas Racing success story. Clint Bowyerfought through a multitude of wrecks to wind up second while Kurt Buschfought to seventh just days before returning to Daytona. (He took February’s Daytona 500).
Even Danica Patrick,despite more bad luck, fought through her own crashes to come home 17th. Could this SHR performance be the start of a trend for a team that’s spent the first few months of this season adjusting to Ford? Remember, the driver that’s won the title in 2015 and '16, the last two years of this NASCAR playoff format, was virtually invisible the first few months of that year. Don’t count SHR out.
Who’s at the Back: AJ Allmendinger
Sonoma is one of two races JTG Daugherty throws all their weight into for Allmendinger, a road course expert. But the ‘Dinger spun out Sunday, and then had battery problems en route to a disappointing 35th-place finish, six laps off the pace. Heading to Daytona, he had a third-place result at the 500 in February but hasn’t seen the top 5 since. In fact, the ‘Dinger hasn’t even ended a race inside the top 15 since Martinsville back in March. That’s not exactly what JTG Daugherty expected since expanding to a two-car effort for ‘Dinger with Chris Buescheralongside.
Chase Elliott has agreed to a contract extension with Hendrick Motorsports that will keep him in the No. 24 Chevrolet through the 2022 season. Elliott, in his second full year on the Cup tour hasn’t won yet but has come close multiple times. In playoff contention for the second straight year, he’s shown consistency and potential top-tier talent driving the car once inhabited by Jeff Gordon. With both Elliott and Jimmie Johnson now signed to long-term extensions, HMS can now focus on replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 and a potential driver change with Kasey Kahne and the No. 5 car as Silly Season heats up.
Aric Almirola has been cleared to test over the next two weeks as he continues recovery from a fractured vertebrae suffered in a Kansas wreck. Right now, the plan is that Almirola could return as soon as the Loudon race in mid-July if all goes well back behind the wheel of a racecar. Darrell Wallace Jr. will continue to fill in during the interim.
NBC takes over television broadcasting duties for NASCAR beginning with this weekend’s event. The network will cover the final 20 races of the Cup Series regular season, culminating with the Homestead season finale on either the main network or NBCSN.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Career victories for Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Cup Series at Daytona and Talladega. That’s 38.4 percent of his career total.
Average start for Martin Truex Jr.in the Cup Series this season to lead all drivers. Other than a 35th-place qualifying effort at Daytona in February, the No. 78 Toyota hasn’t started worse than 16th in any other race. He’s had 13 top-10 qualifying efforts in 16 starts.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
I think, of all the top-tier organizations you have to go with Team Penske.While Ryan Blaney (not in the top tier) was second in the Daytona 500 both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were just as strong.
Logano, in particular needs a solid run to get his season back on track after April’s Richmond victory was labeled an “encumbered” finish. He was sixth in the 500 and hasn’t run outside the top 22 at this track (i.e. – wrecked as part of the Big One) since July 2013.
As for Keselowski, he’s this race’s defending winner. That’s his only top-10 finish at this place since February 2014 but superior speed should keep his Penske Ford at the front Saturday night and likely out of the trouble that’ll brew behind him.
Dale Jr. Dale Jr. Dale Jr. Considering his recent plate track history, Daytona success and the importance of this race I wouldn’t have it any other way.
If, for some reason you’re off the Earnhardt train, Austin Dillon is about as consistent a Daytona performer as you’re going to get. He’s got five top-10 finishes in eight career Daytona starts and hasn’t run worse than 19th since 2013.
There’s so many solid picks here you might not think about. Just consider some of the top-10 finishers from February’s 500. Paul Menard was fifth in this race, a season best and is rarely used at any other racetrack. Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto, driving for single-car team Go FAS Racing; he hasn’t yet matched his ninth-place effort from February.
I’d also take a long, hard look at Darrell Wallace Jr. in the No. 43. Wallace is making his first Daytona start in Cup Saturday night but has a limited number of opportunities remaining to impress with Aric Almirola returning in a few weeks. This team won this race just a few short years ago and was fourth in the 500 with Almirola.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are tied with 13/2 odds while Denny Hamlin is just behind them at 9/1. Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson, the two best drivers this season are listed well back at 12/1 and 15/1, respectively.
What I Think
Earnhardt. The sport’s most popular driver scores the most popular win of the season with a thrilling charge to the front in his final Daytona Cup start.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)