Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway signifies a few alerts such as it’s the first race of July. Only 10 races remain until the playoffs start with NBC taking over broadcasting duties. Maybe most of all, it could be Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s last race at Daytona as he’s set to retire at the end of the season.
For me, the Dale Jr. angle is a big deal. There’s a possibility that he could race at Daytona again, so this might not be the final time he starts, but the link between he and the track make the possibility he won’t ever race there enough to care this might be his last.
As a refresher, this is the track where his father died on the last lap of the 2011 Daytona 500. The cars Dale Earnhardt Sr. owned driven by Michael Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were running 1-2 when it was Dale Sr. who was blocking for them which ultimately caused his fatal accident. I was there that day and it was the most emotional part of any sport I had ever been involved with.
I immediately became a fan of Dale Jr. and rooted for him to do well. I couldn’t imagine the emotions he had to deal with. His father was the most popular driver is NASCAR, the biggest name in NASCAR and all of his fans jumped onto the back of Dale Jr. We were all rooting for him to do well, but he was a mess in the ensuing weeks.
We would see the third Dale Earnhardt Incorporated car driven by Steve Park win at Rockingham the week after the Daytona 500. A week later, Dale Sr’s biggest rival, Jeff Gordon, would win at Las Vegas and then a week after that a rookie named Kevin Harvick, who took over Dale Sr’s car and put No. 29 over the famed No. 3, would win by a bumper at Atlanta. Dale Jr. struggled. His head wasn’t in it and it was quite understandable.
Junior went through the first 16 races of the season with little purpose or desire which is why when the Daytona summer race (Pepsi 400) happened, I figured it was the perfect scenario for everything to go Dale Jr’s way. A redemption of sorts on the track that took his father’s life. I wrote about it all in this very space and suggested a wager on Dale Jr. at 12-to-1 odds was a great bet.
He ended up leading 116 of the 160 laps and took the lead over for good with five laps to go. His teammate, Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 in February would return the favor and be pushing him the entire way and virtually made it impossible for anyone to catch Junior. It still remains one of my favorite races of all-time. Who sheds a tear when someone wins a race? I’ve only done it once and that was it.
Dale Jr. would go on to win two more races that season and then for the next few years he would be considered the best restrictor-plate driver in NASCAR. He’s won four times at Daytona, including this race in 2015.
I’m going to bet him to win there again this week and it’s not just nostalgia and hopes to see something magical at Daytona happen again. Dale Jr. is the biggest name is NASCAR right now. Of course I want to see him go out a winner and make the playoffs.
The question with Dale Jr. is whether or not his mind is into it and I got an answer to that last week at Sonoma. He’s never won on a road course in his career, but he had the real look of determination last week. It began with an outstanding set of practices on Friday, great qualifying on Saturday and then a sixth-place finish on Sunday. I was impressed and it was at that moment I said to myself that this guy is going to win at Daytona next week.
Next week is here, let’s do this!
Story by Micah Roberts in Gaming Today