DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. vividly remembers the moment he realized he had a legitimate shot at winning NASCAR’s first Cup race at Daytona International Speedway since his father’s death at the storied track.
It was a head-spinning, stomach-turning, seat-squirming feeling at 200 mph, and it hit him right in the middle of the 2001 July race at Daytona.
“We’d led a lot and we were really fast, and I said, ‘Man,”’ Junior recalled this week. “That was when it dawned on me that I might win, that I could win the race. Then I started getting nervous and anxiety about it. Any time I get a glimpse of hope that something is going to go right, I start to freak out. But it all worked out.”
Indeed, it was a storybook triumph — one that remains one of the sport’s most memorable moments. Some believe it was simply too good to be true.
Junior led much of the night but fell to seventh following a late caution flag. He took the green flag with six laps remaining, then regained the lead with moves that seemed more like a movie than real restrictor-plate racing.
Darting in and out of the pack alone — racing without the drafting help that is vital at Daytona — it took Earnhardt only a lap and a half to pass everyone in front of him.
That kind of dominance prompted skeptics to wonder if Earnhardt’s victory was somehow staged.
“That’s a bunch of crap,” said veteran driver Elliott Sadler, who finished third that night. “Us in the sport are not that stupid. NASCAR has credibility and responsibility that they have to keep up with, and I promise you, you can ask anyone in this garage what we go through week in and week out to make sure our cars are right.”
Earnhardt’s car was nearly perfect.
It was fast all weekend, especially when the green flag dropped. He led 116 of 160 laps, not a big surprise since he was equally swift five months earlier in the Daytona 500. He finished second to Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip in the season-opening race, crossing the finish line as his father wrecked behind them.
The tragedy changed the landscape of the sport, depriving stock-car racing of its biggest star and bringing safety issues to the forefront. It also focused much of the attention on Earnhardt Jr., who struggled to get comfortable in the role of fan favorite and carrier of the family name.
Junior’s victory in NASCAR’s return to Daytona vaulted him to superstardom.
“It was one of my favorite wins,” he said. “Of course, it was at that moment I was in a really good place emotionally and personally. It had been a tough year and had been tough on a lot of people around me — a lot of my family, a lot of my close friends, a lot of my father’s close friends.
“It was a very difficult time, and I didn’t daydream early. I didn’t daydream about coming in a winning that race. I just wanted to come here and race. I just wanted to race, do my job and go to the next race. I didn’t ever see what happened coming.”
The celebration was equally surprising.
Earnhardt Jr. spun doughnuts in the grass, then climbed out of his car and jumped into the waiting arms of his crew. He eventually joined Waltrip atop his Chevrolet and shared a hug that seemed to last as long as the fireworks and fanfare.
“You can’t script sports,” Waltrip said. “We have 43 cars out there, and even if you wanted to script it, you couldn’t. Sometimes fate intervenes and you get a special moment in time. That night here, right over there, 10 years ago, was special. And this place wouldn’t be near as special if you didn’t hate it at times.”
Although Steve Park gave DEI a win the week after Earnhardt’s death and Kevin Harvick provided Earnhardt’s longtime car owner, Richard Childress, a victory in Atlanta a month later, Junior winning at Daytona rendered more closure for family members, friends and fans.
“I don’t want to put my win on a pedestal among all the great things that a lot of people did that would have brought a little closure to the situation,” Junior said. “It definitely helped me. I think it helped some people in my family. My dad’s sisters and brothers had mentioned that it was a really neat moment for them. It is what it is. We had an awesome car and you couldn’t write a better story.”
Another victory 10 years later might come close.
But winning at Daytona in tonight’s Coke Zero 400 might be tougher than ever. The recently repaved track and the tandem racing it has created have changed the way cars circle NASCAR’s famed speedway.
And Earnhardt has embraced the new ways reluctantly.
“I’d rather have control of my own destiny and be able to go out there and race and just do my own work and worry about my own self,” he said. “It’s really weird and kind of wrong on some levels to race that way and to think like you think. You take care of somebody and you feel this obligation to take care of them and then worry about having them take care of you and how that makes them feel.
“It is just different and weird. ... If you had a car that [you could] drive up through there and you were smart about drafting and knew what you were doing, you could make some cool things happen.”