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Earnhardt's Daytona 500 victory puts wind in NASCAR sails


Thirteen years after tragedy and 10 years after triumph, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into Daytona 500 Victory Lane a second time. Emotions ran high in a race where a car with the slanted, stylized “3” made famous by his late father led the field to green hours earlier. No one would have blamed the driver if, soaking in the breadth of history, he simply broke down in tears.  

Instead? He got up and cheered.

“WOOOO!!!!” That was Earnhardt’s scream in the media center, giddier than a five-year-old kid on Christmas after earning his first restrictor plate victory in over a decade. It was the big-stage moment that NASCAR’s most popular driver had been missing since his move to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. The sport’s Super Bowl had signified falling short of expectations for Earnhardt, who notched three second-place finishes in the 500 over the last four years. Two victories in six seasons at HMS (both at Michigan) made it seem like he, the team’s highest-profile personality on a team full of high profile personalities, was the forgotten man. Perhaps, through that process of skidding downward, Earnhardt also forgot the confidence he once had in himself.

Steve Letarte was brought in as crew chief in 2011 to change all that, and the process has been spectacular to watch; for Earnhardt, it’s been growing up all over again. The chemistry between the two is a connection built on brotherly trust and support. While the results didn’t come right away, what had been missing for the driver the most — the fun factor — returned.

“We really all are best friends,” Earnhardt said of his No. 88 team. “(We) enjoy working with each other. We pull for each other. When you got great people around you, it just makes that whole experience so much more special.”

That’s why this win left fans and competitors alike so excited about its impact: With a Chase bid all but a certainty, this team has the freedom to run wild and loose, gambling for wins and pushing Earnhardt’s profile back towards lofty heights, attracting millions more to a sport that had drifted apart from them. In a sense, the Earnhardt bandwagon never truly left; but with no one believing Junior could eclipse his own teammates, it was hard to stay on board the ship.

Now, that ship has sails, as does NASCAR’s 2014 season. It would be hard to script an ending to Speedweeks any better.

“Through the Gears” we go …

FIRST GEAR: Hendrick teamwork proves key
It was a battle of heavy hitters down the stretch in this 500. Joe Gibbs Racing, with Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth made a bid for the lead. Roush Fenway Racing was impressive; both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards took turns at the front. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano for Penske Racing were right up there. But none of the duos were able to stay together like the three-man Hendrick Motorsports effort of Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson in crunch time.

“Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key,” Earnhardt said of the green-white-checker restart that made the difference. “We timed that perfectly.” But it wasn’t just the final few moments. There was a time when, with 10 laps to go, Earnhardt pushed out in front while Johnson and Gordon, each leading separate lanes, blocked in much the same way Dale Earnhardt Sr. did when Michael Waltrip darted out ahead of the pack in 2001. It was clear HMS was pushing teamwork, aiming for that 1-2-3 finish and it was fine with the other two should Earnhardt win.

“Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014,” Gordon said. “That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one.

“The world is right, right now.”

Johnson, a man Earnhardt called “one of my biggest fans” in a marathon post-race presser, echoed the sentiment. “He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years,” said the six-time champ, who just beat the No. 88 to Victory Lane in the 2013 Daytona 500. “He got it done tonight. He did an awesome job.”’

It’s that genuine care for one another that separate the HMS teammates from those of other organizations. Love it or hate it, the team works together as one, and now with one of their own in the Chase after just one week, it gives them a head start on gathering info for the fall. Watch out.

SECOND GEAR: SHR flops in its first four-team effort  
On a night where Hendrick shined, its sidekicks at Stewart-Haas Racing crashed and burned …  literally. Three of the four drivers wrecked, most notably Danica Patrick, whose car took a vicious hit to the outside wall after being slammed into by Aric Almirola. A 40th-place run was tough to swallow, considering this GoDaddy car might have been better than last year’s — a car show drove to a career-best eighth.

“It seemed like we could move forward,” she said. “But you know, that is the excitement of speedway racing. Anything can happen, and it was unfortunate that I was on the short end of the accident.”

Kurt Busch, meanwhile, was on the short end of NASCAR officiating after a wild spin with 10 laps left. Keeping it off the wall in Turn 4, Busch made a highlight reel save only to watch helplessly as the field kept going, still under green. Losing a lap after flat-spotting the tires, Busch got no caution but threw caution to the wind anyway en route to 21st. A five-minute rowdy radio rant best summarized as “#$(%($*%*$*##*@@*@!” would have left Howard Stern storming off in disgust.

Kevin Harvick, at ground zero of two wrecks that wiped out well over a dozen cars, didn’t have a much better night. His 13th place finish was actually the four-car highlight of the night, considering boss Tony Stewart never got much going. Running in the back of the pack by design, then necessity, due to fuel pickup problems, resulted in a 35th-place finish. His 0-for Daytona drought runs itself up to 16.

Could it have gone worse? Probably not. You’re dealing with the emotional walking wounded heading to Phoenix, short fuses that won’t take much to light up. Already, Harvick’s wife lost it on Twitter Sunday night:

THIRD GEAR: The ups and downs of rookie racersNASCAR’s large rookie class was a big story to start Speedweeks for all the right reasons. On Sunday night, it was for all the wrong ones. Austin Dillon struggled, causing two wrecks and getting involved in a third while leading just one lap from the pole. In the end, he ran ninth but it was hardly the debut he expected. In one of those incidents, he even flat spun main rookie rival Kyle Larson.

“I think the yellow stripes on the bumper showed a little bit tonight,” he said. “But we made it through.”

The rest of the first-years weren’t so lucky. Larson wrecked just two laps in, fought all day to get back on the lead lap and found himself turned by Dillon before he did so. Parker Kligerman, Justin Allgaier, Michael Annett and Cole Whitt were innocent victims of wrecks not of their making. Alex Bowman got caught for speeding, losing two laps and was never a factor. Even Brian Scott, in his second Cup start but not officially running for the award, stubbed his toe. A questionable side-draft of Harvick, which led to the two rubbing, quickly turned into the night’s first multi-car wreck.

Does it mean this first-year class is all hype and no substance? Far from it. On the contrary, Speedweeks showed us there’s more talent in these up-and-comers than we’ve had in years. But as the series moves to Phoenix, Las Vegas and beyond, expect more cautions and more torn-up sheet metal than 2013, across the board. Rookies have that name because they’re working on a learning curve; mistakes will be inevitable. It just so happened Sunday they were all at once.

Bowles: Earnhardt's explosion back into relevancy

FOURTH GEAR: The hard-fought 500, on track and on pit road  Following his third-place showing, Brad Keselowski remarked that Sunday was one of the “hardest-raced 500s,” as far as he was concerned, as well as one of the best. He’s right. Once the monstrous six hour, 21-minute rain delay was over, every one of the 42 drivers remaining (Martin Truex Jr. lost an engine prior) ran like a bat out of hell. Thirty seven of the race’s 42 lead changes happened after that break, but it was the intensity of the competition that made the difference.

Lap after lap, three-wide drafting lanes snaked around the track that can’t often handle it (unlike Talladega). Cars were darting up and down, racing like it was the last lap even though there were 100 to go. Maybe it was the threat of weather. Maybe it was two weeks of perfecting the drafting package. Maybe it was drivers getting antsy after sitting through the equivalent of Noah’s flood (there were tornado warnings over Daytona at one point).

Who cares what the reason was. If NASCAR had races like that every week there would be zero competition-related complaints. That’s how you could tell the intensity was getting to the drivers: there were more pit road snafus than we often see. Favorites like Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch ruined their chances by spinning and running over pit equipment, respectively. Several others got caught for speeding, missteps that automatically meant losing the draft and, especially during the race’s long green-flag run, losing a lap. The difference between winning and losing in this sport has turned razor-thin; Sunday night was an example of why that could make this year the most exciting one yet on all fronts.

Rutherford:Will Daytona success make or break a season?

Richard Childress took a close second to SHR in Speedweeks’ “Biggest Loser” category. Paul Menard led early, seemingly with a top-5 car until the Scott-Harvick wreck took him out. Then, a mistimed bump by Austin Dillon took out teammate Ryan Newman in their first race together. Add in affiliate Martin Truex Jr.’s blown engine, an ECR product handed to Furniture Row Racing, and there’s suddenly a lot of catch-up work to do. … Props go to Landon Cassill for a quiet, 12th-place finish at Daytona with underfunded Hillman Racing. It’s a nice recovery for a team that didn’t have a sponsor until the last minute, nor a driver who was fully healthy; a bike accident with a motorist left Cassill with several bruises on his face and road rash on his arms and legs. … A small group of NASCAR fans didn’t do themselves any favors on dropping the “redneck” moniker when they got confused during the rain delay. Despite a crawl making clear FOX was replaying the 2013 version of the Daytona 500, many took to Twitter thinking they were watching a live telecast. At least they weren’t alone; FOX News and KTXS were among several news stations that congratulated Jimmie Johnson on his second straight victory at the conclusion of the time-filler 500.

By Tom Bowles
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