Junior Makes The 2014 500 A Great American Race
By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
Over the past several years, the Daytona 500 had truly become “NASCAR’s Super Bowl”. That is, more about the pomp than the circumstance.
As with the NFL’s annual biggest game of the year, after which people spend more time talking about commercials and halftime shows than football, NASCAR fans have spent Mondays after their biggest event talking about exploding track driers and pot holes in the pavement than racing.
Not so this year. While Sunday’s 500 appeared to be well on its way to passing into the collective memory as The Rain Delay Race, it produced something that purpose-built novelty-act sideshows had failed to produce in recent years – a talker for all the correct reasons.
The 2014 Daytona 500 was a good race with a result that was sopping wet with honest emotion. The aftermath was so raw and upbeat that the 6-hour, 22-minute weather delay that severed the action not only did not sour the day, but enhanced it.
The centerpiece of it all, of course, was Dale Earnhardt Jr. returning to Daytona International Speedway’s Victory Lane 10 years after winning his first 500.
NASCAR, which in recent years has given off the impression that it was searching in vain for things to add pop to its product, found what it has been looking for right in its own storage bin. The driver who is both a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll all at the same time made the high cost of attending races in the 2000s feel like a bargain.
The crowd at DIS – Earnhardt Nation’s ‘hood – loved the race of course.
But it was a fellow driver – and not a driver who was a teammate or a fellow Chevrolet driver, but a driver whom Earnhardt Jr. had just deprived of his first 500 victory – who put Junior’s/NASCAR’s day in perspective.
“I thought he did a great job,” Ford driver and race spokesman from the margin Brad Keselowski said of Earnhardt. “If there is ever a guy who is due, it is a guy that has finished second three of the last four years.
That is really saying something. Hopefully that will work out for me at Watkins Glen. He has been right there and knocked on the door.
“He runs restrictor plates as an elite driver and is probably in the top-three. He hasn’t got the win when he probably deserved it a couple times due to a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due and today was his day. I am happy for him and happy for all those guys. There are a lot of great people over there on that team.. It is good for them. I am happy for him.”
As happy as Earnhardt’s fans were for him, he was just as happy for them. Sincerely happy for them.
Trust me on this one: Earnhardt has been very sensitive to the disappointment he has inflicted upon his followers in the years since his move to Hendrick.
After winning yesterday, he spent as much time talking about fans as they will spend talking about him today. And the tone of his talk about fans was anything but of the “Ah, the little people” variety.
“When you’re close enough to the front to win races, there’s a lot on the line, it’s a big race, and you want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly,” Earnhardt said. “You realize at that moment, especially inside of 20 laps to go, you’re in the top five, you realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching. There’s so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it’s a heavy weight.
“You get so caught up in trying to do what you can to make that happen. When you finish second or you fall short, it’s really disappointing. You’re proud of that effort inside somewhere, but outwardly you’re disappointed because winning’s all that matters when it comes to Daytona. They won’t really remember you for running second a lot.”
Earnhardt took a breath and a couple more questions in the media center and then returned to the subject of the obligation he feels toward his and his sport’s fans.
“It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say you’re the face of the sport, you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.
“This brings me a lot of joy. I look forward to going and doing all the media all week long and representing the sport.
“I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did tonight. Can’t wait to go to work tomorrow to brag to all their buddies around the water cooler. Monday is going to be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation.”
During tough times, during times of radical change, cynicism takes root easily. There is a sizable group of veteran journalists that, for many very valid reasons, have become cynical of the sport they have covered and, yes, loved over the years.
But through it all, very few of them have directed their cynicism toward Earnhardt Jr., basically because they believe he is authentic goods; that all of the above feelings are straight up. For a couple of days, at least, it will be cynicism relegated to the storage bin.
Because on Sunday at Daytona, Junior helped the Great American Race be great again. He told the sport’s fraternity of gimmick mongers and hucksters and haters, “Sorry, sir, you may not have another.”
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments