Dale Jr.’s Daytona 500 triumph still resonates

Junior’s breakthrough came 10 years ago, but still stays with driver today

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Did it really all happen 10 years ago?

 Difficult to believe, given how vividly the details still stand out. That red and white car with the No. 8 on the side, pulling away over the final 20 laps. The vehicle spinning through the infield grass and parking at the start/finish line. The driver sitting on the ledge of his window opening, facing the crowd and thrusting his arms skyward before being swallowed by a tide of crewmen sprinting over from pit road. The President of the United States, who earlier in the day had given the command to start engines, calling to offer congratulations.

A decade ago? Really?

“You never forget exactly what that day is like,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of his Daytona 500 triumph in 2004. “We come here every year and it all floods back to you as soon as you come back for Speedweeks each season. It’s very fresh, and you’re constantly reminded, I think, by just what goes on during Speedweeks, how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again. It’s definitely fresh.”

daytona_small11 Dale Jr.'s Daytona 500 triumph still resonates

And yet, not even NASCAR’s most popular driver can halt the unstoppable march of time. Indeed it was 10 years ago when Earnhardt scored — to this point — his lone win in the Great American Race, a watershed moment for someone who carried the weight of expectation and family history along with him each time he slid behind the wheel. Driving one of the best restrictor-plate cars in recent memory, battling a string of mishaps that had denied him victory, competing in the inescapable shadow of his father’s triumphs and tragedy on the same 2.5-mile track — it all reached a crescendo in 2004, when Earnhardt Jr. at last broke through and recorded the biggest victory of his career.

Given all that, the emotion that followed was inevitable. As Earnhardt dropped his window net and gave a thumbs-up to the crowd, crew chief Tony Eury Jr. fought back tears in a television interview. Crewman Jay Guarneri, who now works for Danica Patrick‘s team at Stewart-Haas Racing, was the first member of the Dale Earnhardt Inc. crew to embrace the driver in what quickly became a group bear hug. Later in the press box, Earnhardt told the media that he felt his father — who had won his own Daytona 500 six years earlier to the day, and had perished in a final-lap crash at the same facility in 2001 — had been riding along with him.

It was joy, wistfulness and relief all rolled into one. It’s easy to forget now, but to that point Earnhardt Jr. had battled the perception that he wasn’t mature enough or focused enough to be a serious contender at NASCAR’s top level. Among the fan base, there was talk of too many magazine covers, too many MTV appearances, too many parties in the basement bar known as Club E. His Daytona 500 victory was the beginning of the end of all that, kicking off a six-win season that remains one of the best of his career.

“I think anytime you win at Daytona it’s special, but I think for him, with the memory and the history of his family, it was definitely special,” said Richie Gilmore, chief operating officer at Earnhardt Childress Engines who was an executive at DEI a decade ago. “But I do think it took pressure off him. He was kind of following his dad’s footsteps a little bit — he was winning everything here, the Shootout, the 150s, and not getting that win in the 500. … And then we came back and won that race in 2004, and that took pressure off him. You could see it, from just the media side and getting that behind him. It was a big load.”

Indeed, entering 2004, Earnhardt Jr. had built a litany of frustration at Daytona that was beginning to resemble that of his father, who weathered 20 years of close calls and mishaps before winning the Great American Race. In 2002, Earnhardt Jr. had one of the strongest vehicles in the field until running over a piece of debris from teammate Michael Waltrip‘s car and shredding a tire. In 2003 he looked unstoppable, winning what is now the Sprint Unlimited, his qualifying race and the NASCAR Nationwide Series event, putting himself in position to become the first driver ever to sweep Speedweeks — until a faulty alternator drained his battery in what proved a rain-shortened Daytona 500.

The next season, though, the stars finally aligned. Earnhardt was edged by Dale Jarrett in the season-opening exhibition, but won his qualifying event and once again asserted himself as the driver to beat in the 500. On race day the atmosphere was charged by the presence of George W. Bush, the first sitting president to attend a NASCAR event since Ronald Reagan had been in Daytona for Richard Petty’s 200th career victory in 1984. Air Force One swooped down over the backstretch to land at an adjacent airport, and amid a notable security presence, the commander in chief gave the order to start engines.

This time there were no mishaps, and with 20 laps remaining Earnhardt surged past Tony Stewart to the front. “It was just a matter of time,” Stewart, still looking for his own Daytona 500 victory, said that day. “When he decided he was ready to go, he went.” Earnhardt stayed out front for the rest of the race, taking the checkered flag before a jubilant sellout crowd. The Earnhardts became the third father-son combination to win the Daytona 500, following Lee and Richard Petty and Bobby and Davey Allison. For good measure Earnhardt Jr. went out and claimed the rain-postponed Nationwide race the next morning.

But it was the 500 that had everyone buzzing, including the champion. “I wanted to come down here and win,” Earnhardt said that day. “Maybe all those things that happened in the past is what made us work harder, to try to win this race more than any other. I’m not ashamed to say I put more emphasis on coming down here and winning this race, just because of what I’ve been through down here.”

Perhaps no one would have understood that more than his father, who placed his own emphasis on restrictor-plate races even though there were just four each season. The Intimidator and car owner Richard Childress had made plate racing their specialty, fine-tuning superspeedway cars months in advance, and compiling a record of success at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway as a result. When the elder Earnhardt formed his own team, he carried that same importance with him — and built DEI into a restrictor-plate powerhouse no team has been able to replicate since. The foundation of Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 victory was his father’s unshakable belief that restrictor-plate races were the events that mattered most.

Between 2001 and 2004, Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip combined to win an astounding 11 of 16 points races on plate tracks. “Counting qualifying races and 500s and 400s, the (finishes at Daytona) are staggering,” Waltrip remembered. “It’s like 1-1-1-2-1-3. They’re numbers that you just don’t see. And the reason behind all that, in my opinion is, that’s Dale. He knew the importance of a fast car at Daytona, and that was the culture he built at DEI. We were going to have the best speedway cars, and anything else was unacceptable. When he left us, everybody just took that to heart.”

How did they do it? This was the era before the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, after which the focus of many teams shifted more toward the final 10 events of the season. Gilmore said DEI had a dedicated restrictor-plate program, which not every team did. And Earnhardt, Childress and fellow team owner Andy Petree were ahead of their time in forming a technical alliance — known as “RAD,” combining the first initials of the three men involved — to share aerodynamic information. Although such things are commonplace in the garage today, a coalition like RAD was a groundbreaking concept in the early 2000s.

“It was almost, at that time, like some of the mega-teams do now,” said Petree, now an analyst for ESPN. “You see Hendrick now has a relationship with Tony Stewart. They bring all that stuff in‑house. So they’re doing a little bit of that now, but back then we were really the biggest game in town when it came to aerodynamic development, and DEI, they applied it probably better than most. … I think that was a big part of it, and they had the other pieces of the puzzle that really enhanced their effort, I think mainly in the engine department.”

And then there were the drivers involved. “No matter where they were on the race track, they found each other and were dedicated to each other,” Gilmore said of Earnhardt Jr. and Waltrip. “We put all those things together, and it was such a dominant force when we came to Daytona and Talladega. No matter what differences we had as a company, those two were teammates no matter what. And they stuck together, and it was unreal.”

The connection was instinctive. “During that whole run, Dale Jr. and I never sat down and said, ‘All right, what’s the plan?’ And I’m not exaggerating. We never had one conversation,” Waltrip remembered. “We knew that we knew how to get to the front, and we knew that when we got to the front, what our responsibility was. And we just did it. … There was no plan for us. We just winged it.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 campaign represented DEI at its peak. But in a sport where the competitive balance is constantly in motion, no organization can stay on top forever — and indeed, Hendrick Motorsports took the lead in the restrictor-plate game beginning the next season, while DEI eventually fragmented amid a power struggle. Earnhardt joined the Hendrick organization in 2008, but has yet to recapture the magic on plate tracks that he enjoyed at DEI. Although he’s finished second in the Great American Race in three of the past four years, Earnhardt hasn’t won a plate event since that 2004 season, when he followed his Daytona triumph with one at Talladega in the fall.

“He hasn’t lost anything as far as his ability to race these restrictor plates,” said former crew chief Larry McReynolds, now an analyst for FOX Sports, “… but we have so many more drivers today that I think are truly good restrictor-plate racers.”

Indeed, “it’s so hard to win in this sport, and we’re all so close together. I can’t say it’s surprising,” Roush Fenway driver Greg Biffle said of Earnhardt’s drought. And in fairness, Earnhardt has remained a perennial contender at Daytona, his savvy in the draft evident each time his No. 88 car competes on the high banks, his confidence still strong each time he drives through the tunnel. He led 14 laps in his qualifying race Thursday, and will start ninth in the Daytona 500.

“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Earnhardt said of his recent record. “I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence, and just in myself regardless of the car. I still feel like I do restrictor-plate races well, understand how the draft works rather well, and enjoy racing at them. You know, I hope that is always the case. It’s a different challenge every time you come back, and that makes it enjoyable.”

For the time being, though, it’s that 2004 victory that continues to stand out. It was one of those special days at Daytona, and it continued up in the press box during the winner’s media session, when Earnhardt was unexpectedly handed a cell phone. On the other line was President Bush, who had left the track just past the halfway point of the event. Earnhardt casually chatted with the leader of the free world as a few hundred reporters eavesdropped on one end of the conversation. “Most exciting race of my life,” Earnhardt told the president. “Glad to see you today. Take it easy.”

And with that, all the misconceptions about the younger Earnhardt — that he didn’t take his career seriously enough, that he lacked focus, that he was resigned to battle the same demons at Daytona his father once did — vanished into the Florida night. The Dale Earnhardt Jr. who finished that Daytona 500 was not the same driver who started it, and even 10 years later, the emotions generated by his biggest career victory still feel familiar today.

“I had a lot of satisfaction, a lot of relief, and a lot of pride,” Earnhardt remembered. “Certainly, definitely walked around with my chest out for a while. And you still carry that with you after all these years. That will last forever. You never forget about it.”