DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - For a sport facing such drastic change — change that has not necessarily been accepted by an obstinate fanbase — NASCAR needed a dose of familiarity. In its marquee event, the Daytona 500, it got just that. Favorite son and this generation's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., broke a 55-race winless skid with a thrilling victory in the Great American Race, giving NASCAR Nation a brief moment of serenity.
“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport, aside from accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again.”
The win was his second Daytona 500 victory, the first earned 10 years prior. The triumph juxtaposed with the return of the No. 3 car, a symbol made famous by his late father who lost his life in this very race in 2001.
The event was also reminiscent of great Daytona races of the past. A tweaked rules package promoted passing, and the evening’s cooler temperatures — a six and a half hour rain delay pushed the bulk of the event into prime time — increased grip and speed. The result was an action-packed show that witnessed seven cautions, four of which came in the final 32 laps that set up pit strategies that further escalated the drama.
“I think it was the (rules) package and the way you were having to race to stand your ground,” Earnhardt said of the competitive nature of the race.
The sport’s heavy hitters were front and center, as well, slugging it out at the front of the field as the laps wound down. Earnhardt dueled with teammates Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, the Fords of Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Brad Keselowski, and the week’s heretofore strongest contingent, the Toyotas of Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. If NASCAR needed its brightest stars to showcase its biggest event that begins its most dramatically altered season in decades, the boys delivered in fine form.
A chaotic final two-lap dash to the checkered flag found Earnhardt out front, fending off the dogged challenges of Hamlin, Keselowski and Gordon who, along with Johnson, ultimately rounded out the top 5. When the pack failed to formulate a drafting run on the Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevy, he muscled his way to the win as the caution and checkers flew simultaneously due to a crash in Turn 4.
“Tonight it was about not giving an inch; not running fifth,” Earnhardt said. “It was a unique race. We were all pushing the envelope out there and asking a lot of each other.
“Everybody was climbing on top of each other and we all really put each other in difficult situations — but it was really fun. I felt like that for the first time in a long time we were able to see just how talented everybody is.”
“I think everyone raced a hard 500-mile race,” Keselowski agreed. “I never saw a lull in the action from where I was sitting. That has to be the hardest 500 race ever — probably one of the best.”
The competitive race and electric finish, coupled with Earnhardt’s popularity, found the crowded grandstand at a fever pitch on his victory lap. The result was a weight lifted off the shoulders of not only the driver, but that of his massive fanbase.
“It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say that you’re the face of the sport and you’re running fifth or 10th every week it’s difficult because you want to deliver,” Earnhardt said. “This bring me a lot of joy.”
It was a joy others felt as well. Jeff Gordon, the sport’s “wonderboy” turned elder statesman, summed up the collective feelings of NASCAR Nation, which has endured droves of change — seemingly for the sake of change — over the past month.
“Congrats to Junior,” Gordon beamed. “All's right in the world!”
For at least one glorious Sunday night in Daytona Beach, mere miles from the sands where the sport was established, all was right in the world of NASCAR.
Follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro