It is hard to believe that it has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 while driving for his late father’s Dale Earnhardt Inc. Since that day, he has always been competitive in the sport’s biggest race including three second-place finishes in the four 500’s prior to Sunday’s race.
Going into this season, the talk had been how Earnhardt and crew chief Steve Letarte would compete this year, knowing that this would be their last year together as Letarte will be leaving at season’s end to begin a career in the TV booth. It only took 500 miles, stretched over 10 hours, for the two to make a statement that they were going to make the most of the time that they had left together at Hendrick Motorsports.
Since that first victory in the 500 in 2004, Junior had come so close to winning his second that every time the series rolled into Daytona to begin another season he was always one of the favorites to make it to victory lane. This season was no different, but Hendrick Motorsports’ four teams had not grabbed any of the headlines during the track’s Speedweeks.
Earnhardt didn’t dominate the entire race, but he did lead 54 of the 200 laps on Sunday, and that was more than any other driver. Once he had the lead in the closing laps, he showed why he is one of the best restrictor plate drivers as he was able to keep the rest of the field behind him as he maneuvered between the top and bottom lanes to take advantage of any runs being made by another group of drivers.
The 500 has a history of late lap cautions and this year’s edition was no different as a late lap caution set up a two-lap dash to the checkered flag. Earnhardt was in first and started on the outside, but in what turned out to be the move of the race he wasted very little time in getting his Chevrolet out front before turning down in front of eventual second-place driver Denny Hamlin.
The win as you would expect was highly popular with the crowd that had endured a six hour and 22 minute red flag for rain. The sport’s most popular driver as voted by the fans will be the first driver to ever enjoy the benefit of being a race winner under the new system being used to set the Chase field. A driver that wins a race during the first 26 races of the season automatically moves into the Chase with a chance to win the championship. Earnhardt leaves Daytona knowing that there is no pressure on him as far as the Chase goes, giving him and Letarte the opportunity to run for more wins without having to worry about points.
The win was also the eighth Daytona 500 win for his owner, Rick Hendrick, but the good news didn’t end there for his Hendrick Motorsports. Teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson finished in fourth and fifth, giving Hendrick three drivers finishing in the top 5.
This year’s 500 also gave us another race within the race to keep up with as the laps went off the board. Eight of the 43 drivers that took the green flag were rookies, with rookie Austin Dillon sitting on the pole. Dillon had a very eventful race as he was involved in several of the multi-car crashes but still posted the highest finish of any rookie as he finished ninth in his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. The closest finishing rookie to Dillon was Alex Bowman, who finished 23rd.
Martin Truex Jr. has to be glad that Speedweeks is over and it is time to move on to Phoenix. Truex, in his first year with Furniture Row Racing after moving over from Michael Waltrip Racing, began his Daytona experience on a high note as he put his Chevrolet on the outside of the front row. During Thursday’s Duel races, he was caught up in a wreck and had to go to a backup car that forced him to the rear of the field for the start of the race. His engine let go on lap 30, ending his 500 chances and forcing him to start the season playing catch up.
Event: The Profit on CNBC 500
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1-mile Oval, 110 in turns 1&2, 90 in turns 3&4)
Date: March 2, 3 p.m.
Defending champion: Carl Edwards