Perfectly tying into my previous two posts, in which I spoke to why I nearly lost my love for NASCAR racing, and what roped me back in for another year before I said goodbye for good, this past week has made NASCAR history and shown promise for the future of the sport.
Tradition was already on NASCAR’s side this year, as I mentioned in my previous post, due to the return of the number 3 car, most famously driven by late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Sr., who passed away in a last lap crash of the 2001 Daytona 500. The number 3 car hasn’t been in a Sprint Cup race since that day. But now, driven by Earnhardt’s best friend and ‘brother’ Richard Childress’s grandson, Austin Dillion, the 3 car has returned to Sprint Cup racing. Dillion started the Daytona 500 on the pole (in 1st place for racing novices), marking the first time the 3 car had started on the pole at Daytona since 1996.
With Dillion on the pole, the 2014 Daytona 500 got off to a perfect start Sunday afternoon, with 38 laps of racing before rain moved into the area. After severe weather and a nearly six and a half hour rain delay, the race resumed under the lights in primetime.
After the rain delay, as one driver noted after the race, it seemed like everyone ‘flipped to shootout mode’. No one played it safe, it was all out bumping, sideswiping, three-wide, edge-of-your-seat racing nearly the entire rest of the night. As a result, there was no shortage of good crashes either, including one that took out the number 10 car of fan favorite Danica Patrick, the only female driver in NASCAR at the moment and the first woman to ever lead a lap of the 500, spinning her nose first hard into the wall.
In the closing laps, NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhart, Jr. was leading after choosing to stay out in a pit-strategy gamble that left him short on fuel. There were two cautions in the last 20 laps, giving Jr. a break, allowing him to save fuel. The second caution extended past the 500 mile mark of the race, leading to a ‘Green-White-Checkered’ finish (NASCAR’s version of overtime, one green flag lap, followed by the white flag last lap before the checkered flag ends the race). During that caution, Jr. picked up a piece of debris from the accident, sticky-tape that attached itself to the opening grille of his car. Under most circumstances, this would be disastrous, however, with only two laps to go, it actually helped Jr. by creating more downforce on the car. Jr. held on to the lead during the restart, and during the white flag lap, coming to the checkered flag, there was a massive crash behind Jr. bringing out a final caution flag, but as per NASCAR’s rule, once the white flag flies, the next flag ends the race. The running order was frozen at the moment of caution, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. officially takes the checkered flag. His victory marks the end of a year and a half long winless streak.
In a historic Daytona 500, the outcome couldn’t have been more poetic. In the race that his dad’s number 3 car returned not only to Sprint Cup, but also the pole, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. won his second Daytona 500, exactly 10 years after winning his first. Jr. is only the 11th driver in history to win the 500 more than once, a feat that his father, ‘The Intimidator’, couldn’t achieve.
The only major trophy missing from Jr.’s collection is a Sprint Cup Championship, and this victory at the 500 has put him in a great position to make that happen this year. Last year’s Daytona 500 winner, Jimmie Johnson, went on to win the Cup, could that happen again this year for Jr.?
For me, as a Jr. fan myself, I couldn’t be more excited about this season of NASCAR. Between the changes I mentioned in my previous posts and the events of the past week, I see the potential for this to be the most exciting season in years.