“If you didn’t win it was, ‘What a waste of time, why’d he do it?’”
No time wasted here. After two years away from victory lane in any of NASCAR’s top three divisions, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. is once again a winner.
Fittingly, he did it driving with his famous father’s No. 3 adorning the car.
It was a monumental occasion. Even if Earnhardt wouldn’t have won, the allegiances forged for this one race made it so.
Richard Childress, the man the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. drove for during six of his record tying seven championship campaigns in NASCAR’s top division, once again fielded a race car for the younger Earnhardt in the Nationwide Series. It was the first time since 2002 that the two had teamed up.
The car Earnhardt drove tonight was a Childress chassis.
Also involved was Teresa Earnhardt, whom Earnhardt, Jr. had a recent falling out with after the two conflicted over who should have had majority ownership of Dale Earnhardt, Incorporated, a race team the late Earnhardt had founded all the way back in 1980.
Of course, Earnhardt, Jr. ended up leaving the organization to drive for Hendrick Motorsports while DEI ended up merging into what is now Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing.
The two working together again was as huge as any victory could be. It’s a small sign that bygones are bygones and that the two are moving on from the animosity they had towards each other.
And of course, not to be left out, is Rick Hendrick, the man who Earnhardt, Jr. drives for in the Sprint Cup Series. He also provides engines for both Junior Motorsports and the race car Junior drove tonight.
Hendrick fielded cars for some of the late Earnhardt’s biggest rivals during his storied career, including champions Terry Labonte and Jeff Gordon.
The pit crew for Hendrick’s No. 88 car in the Cup Series pitted the car Earnhardt, Jr. drove Saturday night.
“Everybody just volunteered for this deal,” a grinning Earnhardt said with a laugh in victory lane.
All of this was put together as a way of honoring Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s recent induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Considering all of those involved, it was the perfect tribute no matter what the outcome.
Throw in Wrangler and one of the late Earnhardt’s throwback paint schemes, and all it took was the green flag to wave over the new-look Nationwide cars for a lump to form in your throat.
Regardless, there were still many fans who felt the tribute would be meaningless if Earnhardt, Jr. didn’t bring the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet to victory lane.
He knew that and felt that pressure entering the race.
“I was so worried that I wasn’t gonna win because nothing but a win was good enough,” said Earnhardt.
After winning Saturday night's Subway Jalapeno 250, he won’t have to worry anymore. He had to work hard to get this victory, though.
In the first run, he had a car that looked almost out of control it appeared to be so loose. Many drivers, who were all driving the Nationwide Series’ new versions of the Car of Tomorrow, were suffering from the same problem.
However, Earnhardt’s crew, headed by oft-maligned crew chief Tony Eury Jr., seemed to get the car right by the halfway point in the race.
He took the lead from Kyle Busch moments before a yellow flag came out with 26 laps remaining for debris on the race track.
It was a lead he never gave up, even after a blown tire by Paul Menard brought out another late yellow, bunching up the field for a two-lap sprint to the finish.
On that final restart, he got a push from Joey Logano , which briefly separated the two drivers from the pack. No one challenged them.
While conspiracy theorists may want to believe that NASCAR brass fixed this race, the driver who finished second must not have gotten the memo.
“I was trying to win it, I’m not gonna lie,” said Logano .
“The six (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) was coming to me. He got to me, and I was like, ‘Alright, here we go.’ I started peeking high just so he knew it and then I saw him peeking low, so I was like, ‘He’s not going with me I don’t think here.’
“I felt like I was gonna get hung out so I went to the bottom and when I went to the bottom I shoved the three (Earnhardt) out.”
While Logano was disappointed he didn’t get the win, he had one thing in common with much of NASCAR nation. “It’s pretty cool to see the No. 3 in victory lane, by the way.”
It was more than cool. It was also very emotional for both fans and the people who were part of the victory.
“Man, we lost everything here,” said crew chief Tony Eury Jr. while fighting back tears, “and to come back with that number and do this? That means everything.”
Richard Childress also understood the magnitude of Earnhardt’s victory Friday night.
“When Kelley (Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt, Jr’s sister) came to us and put it together I thought it was a great tribute to Dale,” said Childress.
“To see Dale, Jr. here in winner circle tonight and the look on his face brought back many memories of when I saw Dale, Sr. here.”
Memories are what Friday night’s Nationwide race were all about. It was about Remembering Dale Earnhardt Sr. and honoring his place among the NASCAR Hall of Fame's first inductees. His wife, his son, his owner and friend, and his rival coming together with his old sponsor and paint scheme was the perfect way to do it.
Earnhardt, Jr. probably said it best. “Hell, I want everybody just to be happy, you know? That’s all.”
With the exception of his critics, everyone in NASCAR nation has every reason to be happy.
But is there another drive in the No. 3 in the future of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.?
“This is it, no more three for me,” Earnhardt said with a satisfied smile.
If so, then consider his swan song with the number his dad made famous as successful as imaginably possible. Sure it was only a Nationwide Series win.
But it made his fans proud. It made his father’s fans proud.
And you know it made his dad proud.