There’s not much sentimentality in sports. Guys retire, they’re celebrated for a day, or possibly have a farewell tour in their last season, and they’re gone. Replaced by the next group, the next generation, the younger, faster, bigger stronger evolution of whatever game is being played. NASCAR might be the least sentimental of all, drivers retire, or die, and the sport keeps plowing along, growing in popularity, garnering new fans and creating a niche for itself as one of the premier sports in America. But even with the celebration going on as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 , I’m sure more than one fan had a sentimental thought remembering six years ago when his father drove into victory lane at Daytona for the first time as the 500 champion.
When Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, a big segment of fans changed their designation from “rabid” to “casual.” He wanted to win and wasn’t interested in second or third or “a good run.” The other drivers knew it, and it made them compete hard against “The Man in Black.” Fans were polarized by Earnhardt, either they loved him or loathed him, even creating the ABE faction among themselves (Anybody But Earnhardt).
Dale Sr.’s presence is still felt at every NASCAR track, with his memorabilia for sale and the number “3” still popular among the buying public. No where is his presence bigger though than at Daytona. As the track’s winningest driver, Earnhardt looms over the field every time they take the track. So his son feels it as well. The pressure to continue his father’s legacy has been enormous. But right now, he’s succeeding in doing it.
It took Dale Sr. twenty tries to win the Daytona 500; Dale Jr. did it on his fifth attempt. Junior said earlier in the week, “A lot of guys have great careers and never win the Daytona 500 or the points championship. I hope I’m not one of them.”
Running with the best equipment and a solid race team, Earnhardt always has a good car at the super speedways. But he knows what to do with them. He gets to the front and figures out how to stay there.
On a day that the “Great American Race” live up to its billing as perhaps the greatest spectacle in American sports, Dale Jr. provided the finishing touch fans were looking for. He’s become NASCAR’s most popular driver, and is backing it up by getting to victory lane. Winning a championship is next on his “to do” list.