He had confetti literally spilling out of his uniform. He talked to the President of the United States on his flip phone. He did donuts in a Corvette on the streets of Manhattan while talking to David Letterman.
Things were pretty great for Dale Earnhardt Jr. after he won the 2004 Daytona 500. Frankly, things were pretty great for him in the weeks leading up to the race as well.
Earnhardt’s dominance throughout Speedweeks that year was one for the record books. Five races, three wins, two close calls. It was a moment in Daytona 500 history when a great driver in a great car was nearly unbeatable.
Speedweeks began on the last weekend of January with the Rolex 24. In America’s premier sports car race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. shared a prototype with Tony Stewart and Andy Wallace. The NASCAR drivers were each in their second Rolex start, while Wallace had won it three times overall.
After qualifying fourth, Wallace drove the car into the lead early. Around two hours into the race, rain covered the track with a steady stream. When the car came in for rain tires, Earnhardt got behind the wheel. Wallace told the TV broadcast that he thought it was a tough situation to be thrown into.
“To put Dale out, straight away, when it’s raining like this for the first time, I feel really sorry for him,” Wallace said. “But anyway, he’s a real professional; he’ll do a great job.”
It rained and rained, but to everyone’s surprise, the NASCAR drivers were fast. It was especially surprising after Tony Stewart admitted he never raced in the rain before. Just “driving to the grocery store and back,” he said. But the rain kept veteran road racers from charging into the corners and wound up equalizing the competition.
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Wallace, Stewart, and Earnhardt dominated the race, leading overall by three laps with one hour remaining. But unfortunately for them, the final hour was the toughest as the car broke a right-rear rocker mount with 43 minutes remaining. The suspension piece kept the right-rear wheel stable and without it would raise the wheel off the ground. Because the right-rear wheel was in the air, the drop in the back of the car lifted the left-front off the ground as well. The only chance they had to win was to ride around on two wheels for the last 40 minutes. With Stewart behind the wheel, they almost pulled it off.
“Stewart remains on the track with a broken right rear suspension,” Bob Varsha said on the race broadcast. “He doesn’t need new tires because he’s only got two wheels on the ground at any one time. The most dramatic drive I think I have ever seen in 25 years of covering motorsports.”
Having only one wheel on the ground in the back put too much strain on the left-rear tire. With 19 minutes to go, the tire slipped off the rim and spun the car. That left no tires in the rear touching the ground and the car was stranded on its stomach. After the dominance and drama, they settled for third in class.
Moving onto the NASCAR portion of Speedweeks, Earnhardt was favored to win everything he was entered in. Just one year earlier, he won the Budweiser Shootout (now Busch Clash), Thursday’s qualifying race, Saturday’s Busch Series (now Xfinity Series) race, and lost the Daytona 500 because of a dead battery. It wasn’t outrageous to think 2004 could be a clean sweep.
In the Shootout on Feb. 7, Earnhardt pushed Dale Jarrett to the win and finished second. Junior’s team chose to run a new car in the race and use last year’s winner as the backup, a decision Earnhardt regretted.
“It didn’t run too good, so we might should’ve run the (other car),” Earnhardt said. “I betcha that car on the trailer that won here last year is a better race car.”
On Thursday, Junior led the final 14 laps and won the qualifying race. But as opposed to the year before, he had a more reserved attitude, looking ahead to the big prize on Sunday.
“I guess we don’t seemed as excited because we kinda learned our lesson,” Earnhardt Jr. told NASCAR.com after the qualifying race. “We won this race and a couple others last year and were like, ‘Yeah, we’re kicking everybody’s butts out here,’ and then we finished bad in the 500.
“We’re excited to win the 125, but we want to win the 500, so we know we’ve got more work to do. The car can always be better. I don’t think we’re ever satisfied, and that’s the way a championship team should feel.”
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In Saturday’s 300-mile Xfinity Series race, Earnhardt climbed from his eighth-place starting spot to take the lead on Lap 11. He was still leading when a rain shower stopped the race on Lap 31 and postponed the finish to Monday.
Entering the Daytona 500, Vegas oddsmakers picked Earnhardt as the favorite to win, with 5/2 odds.
No one has ever won the Rolex 24 overall and the Daytona 500 in the same year. As fate would have it, two weeks after Earnhardt and Stewart lost the Rolex 24, they were fighting for the win of the “Great American Race.”
Running in second with 20 laps to go, Earnhardt saw an opportunity to pass Stewart for the lead. He got a run in Turn 4 and looked to the outside.
“I was going to try to pass him on the top,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com’s Marty Smith. “So I went up to the top and he moved up, and I just cut the wheel to the left and felt the nose graze across the back bumper of his car.
“I looked and I had about a foot on him, so I thought, ‘Well, he can’t run me across the apron now. He’s got to give me the position.’ He knew I was there, so he wasn’t gonna do any kind of crazy blocking.”
After clearing Stewart, Earnhardt held on to win his first Daytona 500. A celebration at the start/finish line led to a confetti shower in Victory Lane. During a press conference a short while later, Earnhardt’s questioning was interrupted when his cell phone started to ring. The number was private but the call came from the grand marshal of the race — President George W. Bush.
At the time, the 2004 Daytona 500 was the second-most watched race since live coverage began in 1979. It was estimated that an average audience of 17.8 million people saw the race, behind only the 2002 Daytona 500. The ratings showed that more than 11% of all homes in the United States watched Earnhardt cross the start/finish line.
The winning didn’t end in the Daytona 500. In Monday’s conclusion of the Busch Series race, Earnhardt won again to end an unbelievable Speedweeks. From there, it was off to New York to begin the media tour. Tuesday saw Earnhardt make appearances on “The Today Show,” “Live with Regis and Kelly,” CNN and “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
The final results for the two weeks in 2004 were certainly impressive. Three wins, a second place, and a victory snatched away in the closing minutes of the Rolex 24.
It was a feat of Daytona dominance that is tough to match.