Dale's Last Daytona Race Ends in Earnhardt Tradition
No one knows better that Dale Earnhardt Jr. that Daytona International Speedway can "giveth" but can also "taketh" away. The Earnhardt legacy at NASCAR's first super speedway began in 1961 when Ralph Earnhardt (Dale Jr.'s grandfather) was a relief driver for Cotton Owens and finished fifth in the Daytona 500. That paved the way for Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s record setting 34 wins at the Speedway. Dale Jr. was looking for his eighteenth win at Daytona on Saturday night at the Coke Zero 400 before Kevin Harvick blew a tire putting both himself and the #88 car into the wall.
Being dubbed as "Dale-Tona" by the fans, Earnhardt Jr. was set to claim another victory at the track on Saturday having put his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the pole. With teammates Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne in tow, his chances looked good before he clipped the wall and lost two laps in the pits with an unplanned stop. But fans knew that wasn't going to be the end of Earnhardt's day as Junior methodically worked his way back to sixth place on the lead lap by displaying the racing skills that has earned him NASCAR's "Most Popular Driver" for 14 consecutive years.
It would have been easy for Dale Jr. to give up driving in 2001 when his father was killed in a turn four crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Junior finished second in that race driving the No. 8 car for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. just behind his winning teammate Michael Waltrip in the No. 15 car. But believing that the Daytona International Speedway owed his family one, he returned a few months later to claim his first Daytona 400 win. In a pre-race interview for this year's Coke Zero 400, Junior admitted that, although he had raced by the spot where his father had lost his life many times, he had never visited it on foot until recently.
For the third-generation super star, it has never been about money or fame. His unpretentious nature is why millions of fans see him as the boy next door. Listed among the richest racers of all time, his brand continues to grow with tons of "down-to-earth" TV commercials. In addition, his NASCAR racing merchandise out sells all other competitors on an annual basis. So, don't expect Dale Jr. to disappear into the North Carolina countryside. He has already said he would be driving select Xfinity series races for his JR Motorsports team next season. So, maybe fans will get to see him win his 18th race at Daytona or even more as a NASCAR car owner.
photo by Danny Raustadt from 2017 Phoenix race