Junior back in Victory Lane — at Daytona 500
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised down pit road, stopping just long enough for Rick Hendrick to climb halfway inside his window for the short lift to Victory Lane.
Once there, Junior slipped from the beloved No. 88 Chevrolet, bounded past TV cameras and hugged every single crew member he could find to thank them for getting him his second Daytona 500 victory.
This was a celebration 10 years in the making.
It probably won’t be the last this season.
And maybe not the biggest.
“We’re going for the jugular this year,” Earnhardt said after Sunday night’s win in the season-opening Daytona 500.
NASCAR’s most popular driver had to wait out a rain delay of more than six hours, then a chaotic close to end a 55-race drought dating back to 2012. His breakthrough win came at Daytona International Speedway, where he’d finished second in three of the previous four 500s and won “The Great American Race” a decade ago.
His emotions were clearly mixed in the moments after the finish. He screamed the win was better than the first as he took the checkered flag, then did an about-face in Victory Lane.
“I’m grateful to have one it twice now. I was grateful to have won it once,” he said. “In about six months, I’ll be as urgent to try to do it a third time as I was after the first.”
When he finally arrived for his post-race news conference, soaked in beer and champagne nearly two hours after the win and a little over 11 hours after the race first began, he practically sprinted into the room. Arms raised, he yelled “Woo!”
“I bet someone hasn’t come in here and screamed in 30 years,” he said early Monday morning. “They used to!”
They were screaming as he crossed the finish line — those who stayed in the grandstands through the rain delay, and his die-hard fans all across the country.
“The world is right right now — Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500,” teammate Jeff Gordon said. “That’s a sign it’s going to be a great season.”
Rain stopped the race about 45 minutes after it began for a delay of more than six hours. When it resumed, Earnhardt dominated at the track where his father was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race.
He led six times for a race-high 54 laps — all after the rain delay — and seemed to have it under control until things got chaotic near the end. There were 42 lead changes and four multi-car accidents as the field closed in on the checkered flag.
An accident with seven laps to go triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 — Earnhardt’s father’s number made its return to the Daytona 500 for the first time since 2001 — set up a final two-lap shootout to the finish.
Earnhardt got a great jump past Brad Keselowski on the restart, and had Gordon behind him protecting his bumper. But Denny Hamlin came charging through the field and Earnhardt suddenly had a challenger with one lap to go.
Then an accident farther back involving former winners Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution and the win belonged to Earnhardt.
“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”
Hamlin, who won two other races in the buildup to Sunday and was trying to become the first driver to sweep Daytona, wound up second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. He was strongest before the rain delay, but had an issue with his radio when the race resumed and had difficulty hearing his spotter.
“It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end,” Hamlin said. “I’m trying to look up at the scoreboard, trying to figure out how many laps are left. I’m so 50-50 on whether I’m (mad) or I’m happy. I just don’t know. Any other year, I probably would have been jumping up and down.”
Keselowski finished third in a Team Penske Ford, and said after watching a replay he knew he had no chance to win once drivers behind him committed to their moves and Hamlin came charging alongside him.
“I don’t feel like there’s anything I could have done differently,” Keselowski said.
But as a driver who got his break when Earnhardt hired him to drive for JR Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, Keselowski was able to deal with his disappointment.
“If there’s ever a guy who is due, it’s the guy who finished second three out of the last four years. He was due,” Keselowski said. “So I’m happy for him and happy for all those guys. He’s probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate.”
Hendrick took fourth and fifth with Gordon and last year’s race winner, Jimmie Johnson, in what quickly became a company-wide celebration.
“He’s been knocking on the door of the 500 for a lot of years. He got it done tonight — did an awesome job,” said Johnson, who beat Earnhardt to the finish line a year ago.
The win means Hendrick already has one of his four drivers in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship. Under the new win-and-get-in format announced last month, Earnhardt is now eligible to race for the title and can spend the next 25 races preparing for the postseason.
“We might be in the Chase — I ain’t going to worry about that,” Earnhardt said from Victory Lane. “Trust me, man, we’re going to have a blast this year.”