#TBT: Dale Jr. wins first Daytona race since dad's death
July 02, 2015, RJ Kraft, NASCAR.com
Note: NBC Sports Network is reairing this race on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET as part of its NASCAR Classics series.
The 2001 season was far from an easy year for the NASCAR world. The sport was shaken to its core by a crash on the closing lap at Daytona International Speedway during the Daytona 500 that led to the passing of NASCAR Hall of Famer and seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt.
The races in the weeks after were filled with emotion as Dale Earnhardt, Inc. driver Steve Park won the week after the Daytona 500 at Rockingham. Two weeks later, Kevin Harvick, in just his third career Cup start, scored his first career win in the re-numbered No. 29 car for Richard Childress Racing. Harvick had been tapped after the Daytona crash to take over the car, which had been Earnhardt's No. 3.
Many wondered what would happen when the sport returned to Daytona that summer for the Pepsi 400 as an emotional scene was sure to unfold.
The 2001 Pepsi 400 also marked NBC's initial foray into NASCAR race coverage as it was the first race the network televised as part of a six-year pact with the sport. An interesting coincidence is that this year's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona will be NBC's first premier series race under its new TV contract that kicks in this season.
The booth for that first race featured play-by-play man Allen Bestwick with analysts Wally Dallenbach and Benny Parsons. Britney Spears gave the command to start the race. Here is the intro NBC used for races in 2001 featuring the song "Fuel" by Metallica.
At the time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 26 years old and in his second full-time season in the sport's top series. He came to Daytona that summer on a 39-race winless streak. After experiencing the loss of his father, his 2001 season was very much up-and-down as you might imagine. He came into Daytona the sentimental and emotional favorite.
The race had plenty of emotion in the air as Sterling Marlin led the field to the green flag. Starting 13th, it took Earnhardt 26 laps to get his No. 8 Chevrolet to the front and from there it was his show for most of the night. Dale Jr. led 116 circuits in the 160-lap race en route to his third career premier series win and his first at Daytona.
The win was anything but certain though, as Junior had to hold off DEI teammate Michael Waltrip (who held off Junior to win the 2001 Daytona 500), Elliott Sadler and Ward Burton to win by 0.123 seconds.
When the checkered flag dropped, the crowd at Daytona roared with approval as Dale Jr. took the victory under the lights. There were tears and jubilation among the crew members and one heck of a burnout, not to mention a big embrace with Chocolate Myers, the fuel man with RCR on his dad's team. The celebration spilled over to the infield with Dale Jr. and Waltrip, who never got to truly celebrate the Daytona 500 win that year, embracing.
In Victory Lane, an emotionally drained Dale Jr. told NBC's Bill Weber, "Man, I just don't know what to say. I am worn out. I got to thank my buddy Tony (Eury Jr.), my crew chief for hanging in there with me. All my friends, all the guys on the crew.
"I had a great car. It was all car, 100 percent. I was just holding on."
On his father he said, "he was with me tonight. I don't know how I did it. He was there and Michael helped me. I guess we're even now."
He also predicted that he would be "crying sooner or later."
"I dedicate this win to him. There ain't nobody else I could dedicate this win to that it would mean more to me."
Waltrip said of his role reversal with Dale Jr. from the last Daytona race, "I just wanted Dale Jr. to win so bad and I wanted to be a part of it. …I was committed to Dale Jr. just like he was to me in February."
The victory would be the first of three Junior recorded that season as he later added victories at Dover and Talladega in the fall.
NBC returns to NASCAR premier series coverage after a nearly nine-year absence, with Sunday night's Coke Zero 400 (7:45 p.m. ET). Rick Allen will handle the play-by-play duties alongside analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte.