Five months after the death of his father at Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned in triumph
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s return to Daytona International Speedway for last Saturday's Pepsi 400 gave armchair shrinks everywhere cause to dust off their Psych 101 books and locate the chapter on catharsis. Of all the places on the 2.5-mile tri-oval to make a move, Earnhardt chose the same piece of asphalt where his father had been killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 five months ago—the short stretch between Turns 3 and 4—to storm ahead of Johnny Benson with about 12.5 miles to go and take a lead he wouldn't relinquish.
The death of the elder Earnhardt and the ongoing brouhaha surrounding NASCAR's investigation of the crash—including the legal wrangling between the family and news organizations over the release of the autopsy photos, which the Earnhardts are trying to block—had not only cast a pall over the first half of the racing season but also sent 26-year-old Dale Jr. into a tailspin. Junior had finished second in the Daytona 500, but by late March he had fallen to 26th in the standings.
Returning to the scene of the accident clearly seemed to make Junior uncomfortable. At Daytona he and his crew tried especially hard to stay focused on the task at hand. "He won't talk to the media about it," said Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's car chief and his cousin. "He won't talk personally about it."
Come race day, however, Earnhardt dominated. He led for 108 of the first 145 laps and, as Benson said, "We were just racing for second." But shortly after the final round of green-flag pit stops had begun with 17 laps left, trouble occurred. Kurt Busch and Mike Skinner made contact coming out of Turn 4. A 12-car wreck ensued, bringing out a caution flag that allowed the drivers who had already pitted to catch those who hadn't—including Junior. After pitting under the yellow, Earnhardt returned to the track in seventh place. Another caution set up a six-lap shootout. Just before the green flag fell, Tony Eury Sr., Earnhardt's crew chief, said he didn't think Junior had time to pick his way through traffic. Earnhardt needed less than two laps to prove his uncle wrong.
As Earnhardt moved in front, teammate Michael Waltrip settled in behind him, reversing the roles the two had played in February, when Waltrip had won the Daytona 500 with Junior running interference. "I wanted Dale Jr. to win so bad," Waltrip said. "And I wanted to be part of it. I didn't want to finish 10th or 12th. I was committed to Dale Jr. just like he was to me in February."
The race was the first broadcast by NBC this year, and network executives had asked team p.r. representatives to make sure drivers showed plenty of emotion after getting out of their cars. Their request turned out to be unnecessary. After doing a few donuts on the infield grass—the same way his father had after winning the Daytona 500 for the first time, in his 20th attempt, in 1998—Junior hopped on the roof of his Chevy. Shortly thereafter, Waltrip joined him in the infield, and the two embraced. Crewmen from a host of teams mobbed them, their joy a sign not only of how much respect the Earnhardt name carries but also of how much they all realized what a sorely needed shot in the arm Junior's win gave their sport.
"I don't know how to put it in words," said Eury Jr. "Dale was like a dad to me and to several other people on the team, and this puts a little bit of closure on what happened."
The victory also had a quantifiable effect. After his post-Daytona slump, Dale Jr. began to bounce back in April, and last Saturday's win lifted him to ninth in the Winston Cup standings. However, just as he didn't want to spend too much time last week dwelling on the past, Junior didn't want to spend too much of his Saturday night pondering the future. All that mattered to him was the sweetness of the present. "Shoot, I don't really care what happens after this," he said. "It doesn't get any better than this."