Daytona 500 Winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gains Momentum for Sprint Cup Championship

R. Cory Smith@@RCorySmithSenior Writer IFebruary 24, 2014

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 23:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 National Guard Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 23, 2014 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

It might have been just one race, but it was so much more than that for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At 39 years old, Earnhardt Jr. is still the most popular driver in NASCAR, but the results haven't been there in the past few years as he took a 55-race losing streak dating back to 2012 into the Daytona 500.

That all changed on Sunday night as Dale Jr. won his second Great American Race, snapping that winless streak and putting him firmly ahead of the pack for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup at the end of the season.

Earnhardt Jr. spoke about the elation of winning the race and the importance of this one, per the Associated Press (via the Daily News):

Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship. I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good.

[...] This is better than the first one!

How huge was this one for Junior? So big that he decided afterward he would join Twitter, which has led him to over 300,000 followers overnight.

His first tweet wasn't so bad either:

Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter. How is everyone doin? #2XDaytona500Champ

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) February 24, 2014

Not only does the second Daytona 500 triumph make him the 11th driver in the history of the race to win multiple races on the stage, it also set him apart from his father in one category.

Dale Earnhardt worked all his life to win just one 500 back in 1998, but Junior has his second with the two wins coming a decade apart from one another. Junior also tweeted another photo following the win with the statue of his father outside of Daytona:

Look who I ran into at the Daytona Experience. Dad's Happy! #2XDaytona500Champ

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) February 24, 2014

While his father would certainly be proud of the victory, Junior should feel especially excited. Not only does the win give him his first of the season, but it also virtually clinches him a spot in the Chase with the new system.

In fact, if the rules were changed back in 2013, Earnhardt Jr. would have won the Sprint Cup championship, as Jeff Gluck of USA Today points out:

But it turns out last year's champion, if the new rules were applied, would have been Dale Earnhardt Jr., who didn't win a race. 

According to economist Andrew Maness, who runs the site, Earnhardt would have made the final race along with Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon. NASCAR's Mike Forde confirmed the lineup.

The driver who won the most races last season, Matt Kenseth with seven, would not have been eligible for the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The win was huge, but what follows it is even more important. Junior not only looked dominant on Sunday night in the Daytona 500, but also appeared to have an air of confidence as he took the checkered flag.

That confidence can turn into being a little more comfortable behind the wheel after having his first win and could propel him to a huge season, possibly resulting in the points championship that he possibly should have earned last season.

When asked about his expectations following the 500 win, Earnhardt Jr. made it pretty simple, per Nate Ryan of USA Today:

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "We're going for the jugular this year." #nascar

— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) February 24, 2014

And while the win may seem like an outlier for the 39-year-old, he finished with five runner-up finishes in 2013 and he has just one year left to win a championship with crew chief Steve Letarte, who will be retiring after this season to take a job as an analyst.

With a ticket punched to make it to the Chase after the first race of the season, Junior has a lot of pressure taken off of him and carries momentum into the rest of the year. Now he needs to keep stringing together strong runs and clinch his first title.

It may have been just one race, but it was possibly the biggest win for Earnhardt Jr. in his career.


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