From Tragedy To Triumph: Junior Exorcises The Demons of Daytona in 2001
Imagine coming back to the track when, only five months before his death, your father was one of NASCAR's greatest drivers of all time.
All the pressures, expectations, sorrow and anguish had to weigh heavily on then 26-year-old Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was having a tumultuous season in 2001 with more hardships than successes on and off the track.
Immediately inheriting his famous father's fans and expectations, "Little E" had little room for solace and comfort to even fathom what happened in his life and as a driver—what he had to do at each race besides driving the wheels off his car.
Following his runner-up finish to teammate Michael Waltrip in the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. had to carry on, not only for the remainder of the season, but for the rest of his life, without the voice and guidance of his father. There was no longer a proud "Papa" in Victory Lane praising him on a great race, or for advice if he sought for it.
During the early segments of the 2001 campaign, Junior struggled at races like Rockingham (where he was involved in an early crash), Las Vegas (where he missed on the set-up), Atlanta (where he suffered a cut tire), Darlington and Bristol. Regardless of your allegiance, you almost had to wonder how he could bring himself to the track and if he could regain his focus for good showings and finishes.
Things suddenly improved for the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet team at Texas, when Junior won the pole and finished in the eighth position in the race. An 11th place effort at Martinsville, followed by a trio of top-10s, dug Junior from the trenches to the top 10 in points heading into the summer stretch.
Junior and his team experienced a rough month of June, with only a third place finish at Dover being the "sparkling" effort for the No. 8 crew. Finishes of 39th, 20th and 19th offset those solid finishes of April and May, placing "Little E" in 11th position overall in points.
Amidst a new television contract and the great void in the sport from the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. came another big moment for the sport in 2001: the return to Daytona International Speedway for the running of the Pepsi 400.
Why was this a big moment, you ask?
It would mark the first race for NBC as a TV partner for the sport as well as Earnhardt Jr.'s return to the track of his father's tragedy.
It had to haunt Junior that he was coming back to the place where, on the last lap, he raced on to a glorious second-place finish in the Daytona 500, while a few seconds behind him the No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet was crashing head-on between turns three and four.
The infamous black Monte Carlo, synonymous for roughing up fenders and trading paint for nearly 13 seasons, sat idle on the grass portion of the fourth corner, hood smashed into the windshield and a lifeless driver who seemed indestructible to fans and teams.
Gone was "The Intimidator," who for so many years, had given chills to the greats like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, Buddy Baker, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace and Harry Gant as well as some of the sport's new faces like Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Dale Jarrett and Tony Stewart.
You could not possibly watch the race weekend events at Daytona in July of 2001 without thinking about the last-lap tragedy and wondering how Junior would perform under the scrutiny and barriers that stood in his way.
Qualifying 13th for the race, it would not take long before Junior Nation saw their driver race his way to the front.
Taking the lead on lap 27, the MLB All-Star-Budweiser Chevy would lead for 22 circuits in its first stint as the "Pied Piper."
Under that season's rules package for the restrictor plate races, the cars had a gurney strip placed on the roofs as well as a spoiler flare to enhance the drafting and passing at Daytona and Talladega.
As a result, it seemed like no lead was safe at these tracks; and typically, that would mean that Junior's lead would not last for too long. However, on that night of July 7, not even the aerodynamic standards of the cars would deny Junior from leading as many laps as possible.
How strong was the No. 8 car?
Junior led for 116 of 160 laps, clearly having the class of the field in that year's 400-miler. He could pass any competitor on the track at will, with or without drafting help, including an impressive pass for the lead without the aid of another car trailing his Chevrolet.
Surrendering the lead only during rounds of pit-stops and a late-race gamble by Johnny Benson, Jr.'s No. 10 team made sure it was not to be for the Valvoline group, or for any of the 40 drivers and competitors who gave it their all against this Dale Earnhardt, Inc. entry. Passing the defenseless Pontiac, Junior got a friendly assist to the lead from Waltrip, who he helped push to victory for the 500 in February.
This time around, Waltrip repaid the favor for his grieving comrade, playing defense for the No. 8 car en route to another 1-2 DEI finish at Daytona.
Tears fell among the collective eyes in the No. 8 and 15 pit boxes, but unlike in February, they were tears of joy and happiness. Not even the strongest of men, emotionally and/or physically, could stop themselves from shedding those tears for a scene that seemed "written from Heaven."
Whether you rooted Gordon, Wallace, the Labonte brothers, or for a good race, you could not help but feel elated and thrilled for Junior. From his victory doughnuts in the grass with Waltrip, to the emotional scene in Victory Lane, the moments that preceded a classic 400 at Daytona are immortalized. Not only were they forever etched in the minds of not only Junior and his team, but for any race fan who saw a stricken, young man who saw a bit of his burden and pain wash themselves away with his dominant win.
However, that win was not without its moments of cheating accusations, as well as the most bizarre of all claims—that the 2001 Pepsi 400 was fixed.
If so, it's pretty amazing to wonder if the 43 drivers in the field that night were willing to race each other's guts off with knowledge of who was going to win the race. Never mind the dangers of crashing alone or into multiple contenders in multi-million dollar equipment.
As Junior would say in defending his win and the race, "It's all a bunch of crap."
The rest of the 2001 season was a learning experience, but a time that proved successful for "Little E." He would go on to win two more races and place ninth in the overall points standings for his first trip to the awards banquet in New York City.
Eight years have passed since that memorable race and season for NASCAR fans and Junior fans. Both have gone on to reach new highs, experience new lows, but certainly, weather the storm by a tragedy that could have consumed either entity.
Instead, the sport and Junior have pressed on, with hope and optimism for more memories to be built for the fans.
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