Just how big is Junior's Daytona 500 win?
February 25, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
Want to know how blissfully, genuinely, truly happy Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in the immediate wake of his second Daytona 500 victory Sunday night?
Two days after hoisting his Daytona trophy, he actually concluded a teleconference with NASCAR reporters by telling them how much he enjoyed the call; a sentiment the press doesn’t hear very often from athletes.
But it sounded like the same Earnhardt who less than 48 hours earlier greeted those same reporters by walking in the press room door for his winner’s interview just after midnight wearing a huge grin and interrupting the quiet work room by shouting out a cheer.
"Bet that doesn’t happen too much in here does it," he joked.
It was raw emotion and leftover adrenaline and exactly the kind of reaction that lures and captivates us.
Winning the Daytona 500 is a really, really big deal. When the sport’s biggest star wins it, well … you can only imagine.
Before heading out on a national press tour for interviews that included a "Late Show With David Letterman" appearance to celebrate his win and its massive impact on the sport, Earnhardt officially joined Twitter in the early morning hours of Monday.
His un-manned, but years-ago fully-claimed @DaleJr Twitter account had 213,000 followers before he even sent his first Tweet. Now, it's more than doubled that in less than 24 hours.
He still isn’t following anyone else, but said that’s just because he’s "been too busy" to make his selections. There are plenty shamelessly pleading their case now.
As of mid-afternoon on Tuesday, he had only written 10 tweets – most were accompanied by "selfies" he took with his cell phone camera.
A source of complete unfathomable heartbreak when his father was killed there on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the sport’s most famous track is also a continued source of triumph for Earnhardt Jr.
Those there that day can’t forget that Sunday afternoon watching with a helpless and gutted feeling as a then 26-year old Earnhardt Jr. hurriedly parked his car, scrambled out its window and jogged down the entire length of pit road frantically searching to find out what had happened to his dad moments earlier.
And yet, in the months and years afterward, Earnhardt Jr. always insisted he held no grudge toward the town or the track for the accident. Overall, it’s been a source of more happiness than sadness for him. He’s always chosen the fond memories.
And there have been plenty. In addition to the pair of Daytona 500 wins, he has a July Cup win in 2001 and seven finishes of third or better, including three Daytona 500 runner-up showings in the past five years.
His win Sunday in the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet, however, is especially significant because it takes the pressure off what must be hugely strong shoulders for the first time in recent memory. Perhaps for the first time since he’s raced at NASCAR’s Cup level.
His happiness is reflective and indicative of that.
In the short term, this win likely earns him the first berth into the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup field and it lets him go about his final season paired with crew chief Steve Letarte in a more unbridled fashion. It wouldn’t surprise if he turns this special moment into a career season. That’s often it how it works in sports.
The rest of us could only guess how hard it must have been holding up a legacy -- the high expectations under bright glare -- being Dale Earnhardt’s son and namesake.
But Earnhardt has always seen his background as a blessing and admirably handled his circumstances -- the doubters, the believers, the fanatical and the fuddy-duds.
The skeptics would say, sure he won one Daytona 500, when would he get another? Sure he’s made three consecutive championship Chase fields, but when would he again.
Now. The answer is now.
"I can’t even begin to tell you how grateful I am and thankful I am that (team owner) Rick Hendrick didn’t give up on me, that they believed in me, were trying to find ways to make the chemistry work regardless of what anybody said, regardless of what the critics were saying when everybody was saying I was finished, whether I was going to do anything ever again," Earnhardt said.
"I’ve been pretty vindicated, but I’m in a good place now. I got my priorities in better shape. I feel like we’re embarking on a season that could be something really special for me."
Earnhardt has always been gracious taking the good with the lumps. But he conceded Tuesday he hopes this effort under the brightest spotlight will help remind people of his dedication to the sport -- not just as the perennial Most Popular Driver, but as someone extremely driven.
"When we weren’t running good, I think people underestimated how much I cared about performance," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "When you look at the critics and you look at their comments, aside from people saying I was overrated, they would always say I didn’t have killer instinct that I didn’t have the stuff that I needed to drive to win a championship. That I didn’t want it bad enough.
"I was never bothered by being called overrated, because it’s such a broad term. When people really pick at your determination, your drive, your hunger, that bothered me more than anything else did because I grew up around the sport and I love it to death."
That is on full display this week. The grin hasn’t left his face and there is an unmistakable spark and vibe.
Even if you aren’t part of Junior Nation -- an Earnhardt fandom larger than the population of some small countries -- it’s hard to begrudge him this win and what it could do to set this season apart.
"If you look at how happy I was Sunday after winning the race, you’ll know how bad I want to win, you’ll know how much winning means to me and you’ll know from now on that there’s no questioning my killer instinct or drive, whatever term you want to use."