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

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


Mike Krzyzewski: One In A Thousand

Tomorrow when the Duke Blue Devils take on St. John’s, Mike Krzyzewski will have his first chance to earn his 1,000th win as a head coach.  The feat has not been accomplished by any coach in Men’s Division I Basketball.  Coach K’s shot at history will come at Madison Square Garden, quite a location for such an achievement.

The only other coaches at any level to win 1,000 games are Harry Statham (1085-456 at McKendree College) and Danny Miles (1016-420 at Oregon Tech) in NAIA, and Pat Summitt (1098-208 at Tennessee) in NCAA Women’s Division I.  Interestingly enough, Herb Magee (997-397 at Philadelphia University) is about to become the first NCAA Men’s Division II coach to hit the millennium mark.
(Note: Statham, Miles, and McGee are all still active.)

The feat has, obviously, taken time to accomplish.  Krzyzewski has been an active head coach since 1975, when he took the head coaching job at his alma mater, Army, where he had played for Bob Knight from 1966-69.

While his coaching stint at West Point wasn’t overwhelming on paper, he did have a winning record of 73-59 at a place that is very hard to recruit and to coach, and led the Black Knights to an NIT berth in 1978.

Interestingly enough, the most successful player, from the standpoint of a successful career after college, that Coach K coached at Army didn’t go to the NBA like so many of his players do today.  Instead, Robert Brown became a three-star general in the US Army, and was the deputy commanding general in Iraq.

In 1980, Duke boosters were stunned when athletic director Tom Butters hired the young coach (33 at the time) with the hard-to-pronounce name, from Army of all places, to take over the Blue Devils program.  At the time the ACC only had eight members, but had still established itself as one of the premier basketball conferences in the country.  How, many asked, could such a young coach with such little experience, and no experience on any kind of big stage, lead the Blue Devils to compete consistently in the ACC?

Keep in mind that the Duke program at that time, while they were coming off some recent success, including three straight NCAA Tournament berths and a loss in the championship game in 1978, wasn’t considered to be one of the “blue blood” programs, and hadn’t had a ton of successful seasons.  At the time, in 28 years of the ACC Tournament, the Devils had won five championships, but most of them were in the first half of the 1960s.  The job opened up for Krzyzewski after previous coach Bill E. Foster left the program to succeed Frank McGuire at South Carolina.

But Butters knew what he was doing.

However, success for Coach K at Duke wasn’t instantaneous.  After a 17-13 campaign in his inaugural season in Durham, Krzyzewski’s record in his second and third seasons at Duke was 10-17 and 11-17, and after three seasons his overall record sat at 38-47, with a mark of 13-29 in the ACC.  Many who had questioned the hire in the first place hadn’t been won over by the team’s struggles.

But in 1984, Duke reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament after a 24-10 record, tying for third in the ACC at 7-7.  The following year the team improved to 23-7 and 8-6, and by 1986, Krzyzewski had the Blue Devils in the national final, where they lost to Louisville, finishing 37-3.  Players on that team include Johnny Dawkins and Tommy Amaker, both of whom are excellent coaches today, and ESPN lead analyst Jay Bilas.  Only three years after many wanted him (or at least his coaching career) hung in effigy, Krzyzewski had Duke back relevant on the national stage.

Following a trip to the Sweet Sixteen in 1987, Coach K led Duke to back-to-back Final Four appearances in 1988-89, and the national final in 1990, although they lost that title game by 30 to UNLV.

Duke went on to get their revenge, beating UNLV a year later in the Final Four, before beating Kansas for the national title, the first for both the school and Krzyzewski.

The following year, in 1992, the team of Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, and Bobby Hurley repeated as national champions, in a tournament run which includes one of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport, in the Elite Eight against Kentucky.

Following “The Shot”, Duke went on to beat Michigan and the “Fab Five” by 20 in the national title game.  The ’92 Duke team is considered one of the greatest college teams ever, going 34-2 on their way to the title.

After losing in the second round in 1993, Duke returned to the title game in ’94, falling to Arkansas.  Then in 1995, Krzyzewski’s career hit a setback.

After a 9-3 start to the 1994-95 season, Coach K had to leave the team due to back surgery and exhaustion.  The absence of Krzyzewski clearly affected the team, as they fell to a 13-18 record, going 2-14 in the ACC, as assistant coach Pete Gaudet led the Blue Devils in Krzyzewski’s absence.  While the team’s struggles weren’t entirely due to Coack K leaving the team, as they were a very young unit that year, the only Duke team in the last 31 seasons to miss the NCAA Tournament was the ’94-’95 team without Krzyzewski.

In 1996, Duke lost in the first round, before losing in the second round in ’97, and the Elite Eight in ’98, before losing the national final to UConn in 1999, led by National Player of the Year Elton Brand.  The ’99 team was the only team under Krzyzewski to go undefeated, at 16-0, in the ACC, and is the last ACC team to accomplish the feat.

After a Sweet Sixteen run in 2000, Duke returned to the top in 2001, winning Krzyzewski’s third national title.  The title team included Jay Williams, Chris Duhon, Mike Dunleavy, Shane Battier, and Carlos Boozer, all of whom went on to successful pro careers.

Over the next five seasons, from 2002-’06, Duke lost in the Sweet Sixteen four times, but reached the Final Four in 2004, losing to eventual champion UConn.  However, Duke was still winning championships.  From 1999-2006, Duke won seven of the eight ACC Tournament titles.

After early round losses in 2007-’08, in 2009 Duke reached the Sweet Sixteen.  By then, the group of Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Lance Thomas, and Nolan Smith were all upperclassmen, and all returned for the 2010 season.  As a result, Duke won another national title, beating Butler when Gordan Hayward’s half-court shot just missed, winning Coach K’s fourth championship.

Duke ran to the Sweet Sixteen the following year, and the Elite Eight in 2013, with first round upset losses coming in the years in between.

This year, with the freshman trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones, along with veterans Quinn Cook, Amile Jefferson, and Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke is off to a 16-2 start, and (behind #1 Kentucky) is one of the favorites to win the national title.

Coach K is tied with Adolph Rupp for the second most national titles, with four, behind John Wooden’s 10.  However, Krzyzewski is only one behind Wooden for the most Final Four appearances, with 11, and is tied for second with Dean Smith.

Krzyzewski is also tied with Dean Smith for the most ACC Tournament titles, with 13.

In a story for this week’s ESPN The Magazine, Dana O’Neil points out that Coach K has a close relationship with Martin E. Dempsey, who he met in the early 1980’s, when Dempsey, who was a graduate student at Duke, met his fellow West Pointer and offered to help in mentoring some of Krzyzewski’s players from a military perspective.  Today, Dempsey is Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the United States.  According to O’Neil’s piece, Krzyzewski often asks Dempsey to come speak to his team, and Dempsey asks Coach K to come speak at military engagements.  Quite an honor for the West Point graduate.

In addition to his Duke duties, Krzyzewski has coached the USA national team in the offseason since 2006, coaching the likes of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James to a pair of Olympic Gold Medals in 2008 and 2012.  The national team is 63-1 under Coach K.  According to the O’Neil story, Krzyzewski has told friends that coaching the team, even though it takes up much of his time in the offseason, is the best way he can serve his country.

Friday, Coach K added another connection to service to this nation.  Current Blue Devils center Marshall Plumlee participated in a contracting ceremony at Cameron Indoor Stadium, surrounded by his teammates and coaches, where he was sworn in to the US Army.  If Plumlee completes his ROTC requirements, he will become an Army officer after he graduates in the spring of 2016.  The seven-footer is four inches taller than the military’s maximum height, but was given a waiver.  Plumlee is the third of a set of brothers to play at Duke for Krzyzewski, as Miles and Mason Plumlee are currently in the NBA.  Plumlee is averaging 2.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in 9 minutes per game this season.

Here is a look at Krzyzewski’s milestone wins throughout his career, leading to the potential thousandth win on Sunday:

1 — Nov. 28, 1975: Army 56, Lehigh 29

100 –Feb. 24, 1983: Duke 73, Clemson 72 (3 OT)

200 — Dec 13, 1986: Duke 76, Alabama 67

300 — March 16,1990: Duke 81, Richmond 46 (first round, NCAA tournament)
(Also his 227th win at Duke, passing Eddie Cameron for the most wins in Duke history)

400 — Dec. 22, 1993: Duke 79, Iowa 76

500 — Feb. 28, 1998: Duke 77,  North Carolina 75

600 – March 11, 2001: Duke 79, North Carolina 53

700 – Dec. 12, 2004: Duke 82, Toledo 54

800 — March 1, 2008: Duke 87, NC State 86

880  – Dec. 29, 2010: Duke 102, UNC Greensboro 62 (passed Dean Smith for second on career wins list)

900 – March 20, 2011: Duke 73, Michigan 71 (second round, NCAA tournament)

903 — Nov. 15, 2011: Duke 74, Michigan State 69 (passed Bob Knight for first on career wins list)

The 903rd win of Krzyzewski’s career was also at Madison Square Garden, the site of so much basketball history, and the location of Coach K’s first shot at 1,000 on Sunday.  Knight, Krzyzewski’s college coach who he passed with the win, was in attendance that night as an analyst for ESPN.

Love him or hate him, Krzyzewski is a unique coach, and is one of the greatest of all time.  While his longevity is a big reason for the wins milestone he is about to reach, he still has one of the best winning percentages the game has ever seen, at .764 (which would be even better if you take out his time at Army and his first three seasons at Duke).

The players he has coached are also a big part of his success.  Krzyzewski is an excellent recruiter, but just as good as a player developer, leading to 17 All-American selections at Duke during Krzyzewski’s tenure.

The headline “One in a Thousand” for this post was too good to pass up.  However, that doesn’t necessarily fit the accomplishments which Coach K has achieved.

No, in the very competitive business of coaching college basketball, he may just be one in a million.