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
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