Some people will make it through life and never know what it’s like to feel the ground move beneath their feet. Or what it’s like to join thousands of others and become one. Others will never experience a celebration that is bigger than just a few friends and a backyard.
Friday, July 2, 2010 was all the above for those that assembled at the Daytona International Speedway. The annual running of the Subway Jalapeno 250 had so much anticipation leading up to it that every other Nationwide Series race this year looked like a heat race.
It was more than just the fact that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was entered at a racetrack that lives to love the Earnhardt name. On this day it was about Earnhardt Jr. driving a number that fans have wanted to see him in since the ill-fated 2001 Daytona 500. The blue and yellow Wrangler Chevrolet with the No. 3 on the side was expected to be as dominant on the track as the colors were bound to be in the grandstands.
The emotions surrounding that night have been well documented by NASCAR media—what it means for Earnhardt Jr., Kelley, Teresa, Richard Childress, and the Eury’s among others to have won in the No. 3 car. It's a race that will go down in history as one of those where fans talk amongst themselves asking, “Where were you when Junior won in the 3 car?”
It’ll be filed away as one of those moments like September 11 or when President Kennedy was shot. Over the months and years that follow, fans will be able to go back and relive the magic through video clips or article recaps.
The fans will be seen cheering in the background with cameras going crazy, but some won’t know what really happened in the grandstands and what it was like to be in the middle of the celebration.
In order to paint the picture, it must be known what the atmosphere felt like, and in all honesty, it was the calm before the storm. There was a quiet buzz that surrounded the pre-race activities and the stands became more packed than ever before. Many wanted to see the No. 3 car back on the track and the amount of blue and yellow apparel made that quite obvious.
When driver introductions got underway it was still no different than any other race weekend. That was until they got to the driver that was starting on the inside of the second row.
“Starting third, driving the Wrangler Chevrolet, from Kannapolis, North Carolina, Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Or at least that’s what was most likely said. The reception that Earnhardt Jr. gets whenever introduced is usually a warm one, but on Friday everyone knew who was being introduced and what car he was driving. The storm had arrived and their presence firmly felt.
When laps three and four arrived, the electricity surged again, enough to light the track. Three fingers high above, no one could be seen not participating. At the same time on the track, Earnhardt Jr. tried to take the lead and it didn’t seem anyone was opposed, except maybe 42 other drivers.
For the next few hours, the excitement remained as eyes followed the No. 3 car’s every move. For all the excitement, however, there was also the sense of nervousness, hoping that nothing went wrong. Everyone knew how important and special this night was.
When Earnhardt Jr. took the lead on Kyle Busch heading to the start finish line with 31 laps to go, some might have thought it was the last lap. Clapping and cheering in approval, it became clear this was the car to beat. Now out front their was only the anxiousness of counting down the remaining laps.
With 30 left, the caution came out again and their was a sigh and groan amongst the spectators—this could be a long night. Earnhardt Jr. had the lead and the prayers of wanting the race just to be over with were going to have to wait.
At the restart everyone stood…and kept on standing.
Down to 15 laps to go, still on their feet, cheering every time he crossed the finish line. Ten laps to go, and it was becoming an even better reality. Five laps to go, just cruising now, hoping no one pulled out and ruined it. When Paul Menard pulled off turn two with a right front tire flapping in the wind, “that’ll be a caution,” and sure enough we were going into a green-white-checkered finish.
“Kyle Busch [third place] decides to head down pit road, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. says no way,” came across the MRN broadcast. Once that was announced, the crowd again cheered. Earnhardt Jr. was still in the lead.
There really is no clear way of describing the rest of the events of the night, other than to say they were something you had to be there for. Instead of just waiting for the green flag to fly, everyone kept their eyes on the scoring pylon to see which cars were lining up where.
This driver was going to be next to Earnhardt Jr., this one beside, those would be behind. By the way, people were still standing—no need to sit down now. On the restart the applause broke out again, just two laps away from glory.
Coming off turn four heading to the white flag, Daytona International Speedway erupted. The ground started to shake, fans climbed on top of their chairs to stomp their feet in approval. Down the backstretch, it was simply more cheers and more cries of joy, some of them you couldn’t even make out.
But there was noise.
Turn three, getting closer, the crowd got louder. Off turn four it was a reality—Earnhardt Jr. was going to win the No. 3. When he crossed the finish line, people started jumping up and down, hugging each other, even complete strangers. Then it became a race to get along the fence to see his victory celebration.
Security was heavily outnumbered. Sure, it said don’t stand or lean against the fence, but trying to stop them then was impossible. As Earnhardt Jr. drove past down to the pit road exit before turning around, fans applauded him and flashbulbs went crazy. The same occurred when he drove back past waving out the window.
Security and track officials still tried to clear everyone out. It wasn’t going to happen. Instead, they went and climbed back on top their seats and waited to see the victory lane interview. Even a half hour after the race had ended, fans were still there and cheering. When Earnhardt Jr. started talking, they cheered after his every sentence.
Fans gave themselves beer baths in celebration. They were in victory lane with their driver and soaking up every minute of it. Picture professional wrestler Steve Austin threw a few back when celebrating a win and that's what the stands were like.
Blue and yellow shirts that were once on their backs were now being waved high above their heads.
Finally, the masses started to slowly make their way out, talking excitedly with others as they did. Some still amazed at what they saw, others in no doubt and knew it, and the few that were ready for the weekend sweep.
But, just as Earnhardt Jr. said coming to the checked flag there is only one way to sum it all up, “Well I’ll be damned.”