For those of us who watched the race, we saw Dale Earnhardt Jr. have the best car over the final quarter of the 2014 Daytona 500. A lot of us watched, after roughly six hours of rain delay and after the latest episode of The Walking Dead aired, a lot of us saw a Dale Jr. we have not seen in a long time. We saw a happy, almost childlike Dale Jr. salute his fans and react to winning the biggest race of the NASCAR calendar with the enthusiasm that made him the most popular driver in this sport. To be honest, it is a side of Dale Jr. we have not seen in some time.
Over the course of his career, Dale Jr. has had a tremendous load to carry. It is often said that driving talent skips a generation and there have been several NASCAR drivers over the years that have failed miserably at living up to the immense careers of their father’s. Dale Jr. is a third generation NASCAR star and has had to live in the shadow of his immensely talented father all of his life. Add to that the sadness of living through his father’s tragic death, his decision to leave his father’s team, all on top of the pressure to win and live up to his name. At times it seems that pressure has gotten to Junior.
Before winning yesterday, Dale Jr. had only won two races in the past five NASCAR seasons. While he has contended for the Sprint Cup Championships twice in that time, victory road has not been a place he has found as often as he did at the beginning of his career. Remember we are talking about a guy who won six races in 2004. The question becomes what is different about Junior? Because we saw a different Junior after that victory Sunday night.
It would seem there are two key factors here. Steve Letarte, Dale’s crew chief, is in his final season as the leader of the #88 team. He will leave the team next year for the NBC TV booth. He certainly would like to have a phenomenal final season atop Junior’s pit box. However, maybe the bigger factor here is the return of the black #3 with Austin Dillon driving.
The black #3 Chevy is one of the most iconic cars in the history of NASCAR. It has certainly played a large role in Junior’s life and maybe as that torch is passed to Dillon (who has the number in homage for his grandfather and team owner Richard Childress) some of the pressure Junior feels to live up to his father’s legacy is abated.
If that is true, then it might be time for a very special year for NASCAR’s most popular driver.