Column: Earnhardt’s Daytona Experiences Are a Microcosm of His Career

Tonight, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will lead the field to green in the Coke Zero 400, starting a race at Daytona for (maybe) the final time.

But while it’s easy to foresee a future one-off run in a Daytona race at some point–his pole for tonight’s race does qualify him for next year’s Clash after all–tonight marks the final time that the 14-time defending Most Popular Driver will for sure fasten his belts in a Cup Series race at the World Center of Racing.

If this is, in fact, Dale’s Daytona denouement, what a roller-coaster ride it’s been.

The ride at the two-and-a-half mile superspeedway has been mostly good, and on some occasions it’s been great.

Earnhardt Jr. grew up coming to Daytona with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who himself had plenty of success on Daytona’s high banks, but took 20 years to win the Daytona 500 after numerous heartbreaks.

Once he himself could drive, Earnhardt Jr. quickly became as proficient as his father at restrictor-plate racing at Daytona.  Earnhardt Jr. won the 2004 Daytona 500 driving for family-owned Dale Earnhardt Inc., then after a move to Hendrick Motorsports and a mid-career slump, won the Great American Race again in 2014.

But Daytona has also been the site of the darkest moment for Earnhardt Jr., not just his career but his life.  It was here in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500, battling to protect third while Earnhardt Jr. and teammate Michael Waltrip fought for the victory, which Waltrip won.

Coming back to Daytona that July wasn’t easy.  A week before the 2001 Coke Zero 400, Earnhardt Jr. drove to the fourth turn to meditate, to “make peace,” as he later put it, and to bring closure before returning to drive the track that claimed his father’s life.

Yet that Saturday night when the checkered flag fell, it was Earnhardt Jr. who claimed the victory, with Waltrip second, a reverse of their 1-2 finish in February that was never celebrated due to Earnhardt Sr.’s death.

The defining image of Earnhardt Jr.’s career has to be the celebration, on top of his white and red #8 Chevrolet in the Daytona infield, giving a bear hug to Waltrip who joined him for the liberating moment.

I can count on one hand the number of times I could hear the roar of the crowd over the roar of the engines in a race I watched on television.  The moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Coke Zero 400 in 2001 is not only one of these moments, but is the most pronounced–in other instances the roar of the engines was still obviously discernible, but here the crowd was so loud the engines were, unfathomably, drowned out to little more than a faint hum.

If he can win tonight in possibly his final Daytona start, the reaction of the over 100,000 fans in attendance may be just as remarkable.

Earnhardt Jr. also won the 2015 Coke Zero 400, making him one of 11 drivers to win the event twice.  He is also one of 11 drivers to win the Daytona 500 twice, and one of only six to win both the Daytona 500 and the Coke Zero 400 twice (Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Jeff Gordon, Bobby Allison, Bill Elliott).  In total, he has 17 wins at Daytona, including two wins in the Clash, five in Duels (Daytona 500 qualifying races), and six in the Xfinity Series.

Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona career is a microcosm of his life–he’s had big shoes to fill in the shadow of his father, and while he hasn’t statistically had as much success as his father, he’s certainly become something that Dale Earnhardt Sr. would be proud of, both on and off the racetrack.

 

Go Time for Several Star Drivers

Earnhardt Jr. is in a must-win situation over the next 10 races, as he tries to qualify for NASCAR’s playoffs, but he’s not the only star who finds themselves in a tight spot entering the regular season’s stretch run.

There are 16 spots in the playoffs, with race winners getting first priority.  10 drivers have earned a playoff spot through a race win so far this season, leaving just six spots for everyone else with 10 races left before the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Richmond.  With a strong chance of additional drivers winning over the next 10 races, that bubble could get even tighter.

Established stars searching for their first win of 2017 include Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth, and all have been knocking on the door of victory lane in recent weeks.

Chase Elliott, Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have also been close, as they each seek their first career win.  Joey Logano won at Richmond on April 30, but the win doesn’t count for playoff qualification due to his car failing post-race inspection (illegal rear suspension).

While race winners are in the playoffs (provided that they stay in the top 30 in points, which shouldn’t be a problem for any current winner), everyone else is fighting for wins to lock themselves in and not have to worry about squeezing themselves inside the increasingly tight points bubble.

 

The King Turns 80

Richard Petty, “The King” of stock-car racing, turns 80 on Sunday.

Petty won 200 races and seven championships over his 35-year Cup Series career, but that’s not even the biggest reason he’s arguably the most popular NASCAR driver of all-time.

If there was ever a competitor who wanted Petty’s advice, or a fan who wanted a handshake or Petty’s iconic autograph, they have never left the track disappointed.

Even 25 years after his career ended, the model of what a NASCAR driver should be on and off the track is still very much what Petty was:  drive fast, and after you’ve won thank and sponsors the fans any way you can, whether it’s through autographs or promotional appearances.

I’ve never met Richard Petty face-to-face, but I am one of the thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of fans who has his signature.  After I wrote a set of interview questions for Petty in a third grade class assignment, a family friend who volunteered at Victory Junction Gang, a camp for chronically ill children in Randleman, N.C. founded by Richard’s son Kyle in memory of Kyle’s late son Adam, passed along the questions to The King.

A few weeks later, I got a package from Richard Petty Motorsports, with Petty’s autograph and the typed answers to my interview questions.

To this day, Petty is by far the most famous person I’ve ever “interviewed.”

Petty will celebrate his 80th birthday as he’s celebrated many of the previous 79:  at the racetrack.

Petty has been present for every Daytona 500, driving the first 34 of them before attending the most recent 25 as a car owner, and was even present at the first Cup Series race in 1949.  He worked on his father’s pit crew before driving, started 1,184 Cup Series races, and has hung around the racetrack in the years since his 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour.”

Tonight is the 2,515th race in Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series history; I’d be willing to bet The King has missed less than 100 of them.

The company colors (still Petty blue) will be carried by Darrell Wallace Jr. in the #43 Smithfield Ford, starting 28th in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona.  While Dale Earnhardt Jr. is certainly the sentimental favorite, wouldn’t it be fitting for The King’s milestone to be celebrated with a trip to victory lane?

Happy birthday, King Richard.  And thank you.

 

 

 

2017 Coke Zero 400
Lineup

Row 1:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott
Row 2:  Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 4:  Joey Logano, Jamie McMurray
Row 5:  Ryan Blaney, Danica Patrick
Row 6:  Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson
Row 7:  Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch
Row 9:  Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin
Row 10:  Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez
Row 11:  Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman
Row 12:  Michael McDowell, Paul Menard
Row 13:  Martin Truex Jr., Landon Cassill
Row 14:  A.J. Allmendinger, Matt DiBenedetto
Row 15:  Chris Buescher, David Ragan
Row 16:  Darrell Wallace Jr., Brendan Gaughan
Row 17:  Elliott Sadler, Ty Dillon
Row 18:  Cole Whitt, Corey Lajoie
Row 19:  Reed Sorenson, Ryan Sieg
Row 20:  Jeffrey Earnhardt, D.J. Kennington

Coke Zero 400 Winners
1959 Fireball Roberts
1960 Jack Smith
1961 David Pearson
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Fireball Roberts
1964 A.J. Foyt
1965 A.J. Foyt
1966 Sam McQuagg
1967 Cale Yarborough
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 LeeRoy Yarbrough
1970 Donnie Allison
1971 Bobby Isaac
1972 David Pearson
1973 David Pearson
1974 David Pearson
1975 Richard Petty
1976 Cale Yarborough
1977 Richard Petty
1978 David Pearson
1979 Neil Bonnett
1980 Bobby Allison
1981 Cale Yarborough
1982 Bobby Allison
1983 Buddy Baker
1984 Richard Petty
1985 Greg Sacks
1986 Tim Richmond
1987 Bobby Allison
1988 Bill Elliott
1989 Davey Allison
1990 Dale Earnhardt 
1991 Bill Elliott
1992 Ernie Irvan
1993 Dale Earnhardt
1994 Jimmy Spencer
1995 Jeff Gordon
1996 Sterling Marlin
1997 John Andretti
1998 Jeff Gordon
1999 Dale Jarrett
2000 Jeff Burton
2001 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2002 Michael Waltrip
2003 Greg Biffle
2004 Jeff Gordon
2005 Tony Stewart
2006 Tony Stewart
2007 Jamie McMurray
2008 Kyle Busch
2009 Tony Stewart
2010 Kevin Harvick
2011 David Ragan
2012 Tony Stewart
2013 Jimmie Johnson
2014 Aric Almirola
2015 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2016 Brad Keselowski

The Significance of 3

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, after crashing in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.  Most years during Daytona Speedweeks, Earnhardt’s life, death, and legacy are remembered, and particularly on February 18, by many of those in the garage area who raced against Earnhardt on the track and were friends with him off the track.  And when these folks think of “The Intimidator” on the track, the first thing that comes to mind is the black #3 car that he drove for so many years, and that hasn’t been seen in a Sprint Cup race since.  Earnhardt began at Richard Childress Racing for good in 1984, after a brief stint with the team in 1981, and although he originally drove the blue and yellow colors of Wrangler, by 1988 he was driving the all black paint scheme and white number that is so synonymous with the Earnhardt name today.

There’s a lot of people out there that only look at the 3 as an Earnhardt number, and rightfully so, as the only driver a 35-year old fan would remember driving the number is Earnhardt.  However, there is a lot of history behind the 3 from before Earnhardt ever drove it.

The car has made 1,134 starts and won 97 times.  Sure, most of the wins were by Earnhardt (67 of his 76 career wins), but there were 30 wins for the number before Earnhardt, and 73 drivers have turned laps driving the number (that will be 74 on Sunday, I’ll get there momentarily).

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, in NASCAR’s early days, it was common for a car’s owner to also be its chief mechanic, and big name mechanics like Ray Fox and Smokey Yunick commonly ran the 3.  Before the Daytona 500 began in 1959, the last two beach course races in Daytona were won by Cotton Owens in 1957 and Paul Goldsmith in 1958, both driving car #3.  Fireball Roberts won the inaugural Daytona July race in the 3.  The first 3 wins of David Pearson’s career, including the 1961 World 600 in Charlotte, and the last 2 wins of Buck Baker’s career all came in the 3, and 9 of Junior Johnson’s 50 career wins were in the 3 car.  Buddy Baker also won 2 races, including a World 600, driving the number.  Among the others that drove #3 include legends Marvin Panch, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Isaac, and NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Tim Flock.

From 1976 to 1981, Richard Childress drove a self-owned 3 car, in the beginning stages of the history of Richard Childress Racing.  Childress never won, but finished as high as 3rd at Nashville in 1978.  He retired during the 1981 season after the opportunity to sign Earnhardt, and a Wrangler sponsorship, came.  After a brief stint in the 3, at the suggestion of Childress, Earnhardt went to drive for Bud Moore, a long-standing, well-funded team which, at the time, gave Earnhardt a better opportunity.  Ricky Rudd came to RCR for the 1982-83 seasons, scoring his first 2 wins in 1983.  Earnhardt and Rudd swapped rides, as Earnhardt came back to Childress and Rudd went to drive for Moore.

And the rest is history.  Earnhardt won 6 of his 7 titles while driving for Childress, a ride he never left for the rest of his career.  The stylized 3 logo that we all see on so many bumper stickers and t-shirts is a symbol of a man and his racing career, but also the connection the fans seemed to have with Earnhardt.  He was the everyman, who had come up through the ranks from the small mill town of Kannapolis, NC.  And the man was taken away in a flash, doing what he loved, driving a racecar.  He was blocking to protect the position of his friend and employee, Michael Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and made contact with Sterling Marlin that shot him up the track, into Ken Schrader, and head-on into the concrete turn 4 wall.

A week later, the 3 team continued to race, as Childress did what everyone who knew Dale said he would want the team to do, but changed the car number to 29 for rookie driver Kevin Harvick.  So in many ways, the history of the 3 should include the 23 wins for Harvick while driving the 29 to a trio of 3rd place finishes in points.  Childress vowed the 3 would not be raced in any of the 3 NASCAR national series unless an Earnhardt or Childress family member was doing the driving.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the 3 in a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002, and winning at Daytona, before running it again in the Daytona Nationwide Series race in July 2010, and winning.  He then said he, too, was done with #3.  And along came Austin Dillon.

Austin Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress.  For Dillon, 3 didn’t start out as a racing number; it was his baseball number.  Dillon was a member of the team from the Southwest Forsyth Little League in Clemmons, NC that appeared in the 2002 Little League World Series, wearing #3, in honor of both his grandfather and Earnhardt, one of his heroes.

Austin and his brother, Ty Dillon, got into racing by the time they were old enough to drive.  Beginning at the lower levels of NASCAR racing, Childress asked both what number they wanted to run.  Ty said he wanted to run #2, the number run by his father Mike, who had 15 top tens in a 154-race Nationwide Series career.  (Mike Dillon also drove the 3, albeit unofficially, for one race, substituting for Earnhardt after Earnhardt blacked out on the opening lap of the 1997 Southern 500 at Darlington.)  Austin said he wanted to run the 3, that number he had used to honor both Childress and Earnhardt during his baseball days, and acknowledged the significance of the number on the side of any racecar at any level, particularly one run by the grandson of Childress.

Back to Earnhardt (briefly).  Before he drove the 3, he had won Rookie of the Year in 1979 and his first Sprint Cup Series title in 1980, driving car #2 for owner Rod Osterlund.  Keep that pattern in mind.

Now back to Austin Dillon.  By 2010, after a couple of years running races in smaller NASCAR-sanctioned touring series, Dillon moved to the Camping World Truck Series full-time.  After a rookie record 5 poles, and wins at Iowa and Las Vegas, Dillon won Rookie of the Year, and finished 5th in the series standings.  In 2011, he won 2 more races, and won the series championship.

In 2012, Dillon moved to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which is analogous to triple-A baseball.  Dillon won a pair of races in the series, sweeping the season’s 2 events at Kentucky Speedway, finished 3rd in the standings, and won Rookie of the Year.  In 2013, he won the series championship.  Dillon proved his consistency in winning the title, becoming the first champion in any of NASCAR’s 3 national series without winning a race during the season.

So it’s definitely time for Dillon to be rewarded with a Sprint Cup Series ride.  Dillon actually started 11 races in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, running 5 races for RCR (in #33, though), 4 for Phoenix Racing, and 2 as a replacement for the injured Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing.  His high finish was 11th at Michigan, although he was running 3rd at the white flag in Stewart’s #14 at Talladega before being involved in a crash while being aggressive and going for the win.  As mentioned, the starts for RCR were in car #33, so this year, when Dillon will run the full Sprint Cup Schedule, and compete for Rookie of the Year, he will be running #3 in the Cup Series for the first time.

Oh yeah, about that car number…

While Dillon has brought the 3 back to both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, bringing it back to the premier level of NASCAR racing is a different story.  Seeing the 3 on a Sprint Cup Series track will bring back memories for many, while allowing other younger fans a chance to become better educated about the life and legacy of the “Man in Black.”  I could say I am one of those younger fans, as I was 6 days short of my 6th birthday when Earnhardt died.  While I remember Earnhardt’s death, I wasn’t old enough to understand what the 3 stood for when I saw it on the track.  Most people I’ve heard, both from the inside of the sport and from its fan base, are supportive of the number returning to the track.  Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a good thing his father’s number was back.  However, there are still those who don’t want to see anyone except their hero behind the wheel of an RCR #3 car.

One of the skeptics was Dale Earnhardt’s mother, Martha.  At first she said she wasn’t sure whether or not she liked the idea of Dillon driving the number, although she has said it will be alright as long as the car isn’t painted like Earnhardt’s (it won’t be), and is competitive with Dillon behind the wheel (it will be).  There are also some among Earnhardt’s fans that say that no one, no matter who it is, should drive Dale’s car number.  It could be argued that, while some know the sport’s history and just aren’t receptive to seeing someone new in the 3, others don’t realize the deep amount of history behind the car number.  Even without Earnhardt, the number would rank alongside 11 and 43 among the great car numbers throughout the sport’s history.

In addition, I had a thought about the way the skeptics feel.  If it wasn’t Dillon to bring back the number, eventually Childress would retire as a car owner or grow old and die, and would be out of the sport.  And, therefore, eventually, once those who were around during Earnhardt’s career are gone from the garage, someone would have a notion to bring the number back; perhaps it would be someone with no business returning the iconic number to the track.  This way, with Dillon, driving, it’s a Childress family member, and Childress is honoring his friend, Earnhardt, through running the number, but doing so completely on his own terms.  And I heard someone point out over the weekend that Childress seems as happy at the track and as focused at the track as he’s been since the death of Earnhardt.  While that may be simply due to the fact that one of his drivers is also his grandson, I have reason to believe that seeing the 3 back on the track for the first time since Austin Dillon was 10 is part of the reason for the glimmer in his eye.  If something as simple as a car number can reenergize a 68-year old man, why not let him re-enter the number into the sport?

It will become official in this Sunday’s Daytona 500, when Dillon makes his first start in a 3 car in Cup Series competition.  Buzz surrounded preseason testing at Daytona, when the 3 made its first appearance, even if it was in a testing format.  And Dillon didn’t disappoint, running he fastest lap of the session, putting #3 back on top of the Daytona scoring pylon.  Another step forward was taken on Saturday, when Dillon ran 4th and 2nd fastest in a pair of sessions preparing for 500 pole qualifying.  And then it happened.  Sunday, Dillon won the pole for the 56th Daytona 500, becoming the 4th driver to do so in the 3 car, joining Buddy Baker in 1969, Ricky Rudd in 1983, and Dale Earnhardt in 1996.  While many shrug of pole qualifying as all engine and aerodynamics and no driver (they’ve got a point, particularly considering last year’s pole winner finished 27th in season points), I think it may be a sign of things to come, both in the rest of Daytona Speedweeks, and throughout the 2014 Sprint Cup season.  With an obviously fast car, and a good superspeedway racer behind the wheel, Dillon is an excellent dark horse pick to pull off the Hollywood ending and win the Daytona 500.

Given the history of #3, I would be far from surprised.

(By the way, Ty Dillon ran the 3 in the Camping World Truck Series after Dillon moved on, and will run it in the Nationwide Series this year after Dillon’s move to Cup.)

Further Reading:  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2013/12/11/dale-earnhardt-number-3-austin-dillon-richard-childress-2014-sprint-cup-series.html