Following his end-over-end wreck in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said that he hoped it was spectacular, since he didn’t want to waste the opportunity.
24 hours later, it was his fans that were saying Earnhardt Jr. was spectacular for all the right reasons.
After a 2009 season where Earnhardt Jr.’s loyal fans, dubbed Junior Nation, had nothing to cheer about—he went winless, missed the Chase, and only had two top-five finishes—Speedweeks 2010 couldn’t come quick enough. After all the offseason work and talk, both Earnhardt Jr. and his fans were glad to be back at the racetrack—a racetrack at which, over the course of his career, he’s found victory lane.
Qualifying on the front row for the Daytona 500 last Saturday immediately put the team and fans, in the stands and at home, in a positive and energetic mood.
For the next seven days, the talk became centered on whether Dale Earnhardt Jr. was back, how he would ensure that 2009 didn’t repeat itself, and if he could win the Daytona 500.
While the rest of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates encountered problems in both the Budweiser Shootout and Thursday’s Gatorade Duels, Earnhardt Jr. and his team managed to quietly continue bettering their machine. Only a minor hiccup during his Duel race made the No. 88 team massage the quarter panels of his AMP Energy Chevrolet.
Not to worry; when the green flag waved on the Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. showed that he was a contender again.
Leading laps and not having any pit road miscues, the 2010 season was already off to a better start for the No. 88 team than last year. Past the halfway mark, Earnhardt Jr. found himself in the 22nd position when the red flag was displayed because a part of the turn-one track had come apart.
Fans held their breath as they waited to hear what NASCAR officials would do.
An hour later, the engines were roaring around the 2.5-mile superspeedway again and Earnhardt Jr. worked his Chevy to just outside the top 10. Then, the red flag was back out again because of the turn-one hole.
Now fans became really anxious about whether the race would be called since there were only 40 laps remaining.
Luckily, 45 minutes later, the Daytona 500 was back to racing in the hopes of finishing the biggest event of the year the way it should be—under green.
As Kevin Harvick and Richard Childress Racing teammate Clint Bowyer went head-to-head with the Fords from Roush-Fenway Racing, Earnhardt Jr. began to slip and slide between 10th and 20th position.
With just six laps remaining of the scheduled 200, the seventh caution of the day flew. Earnhardt Jr. brought his No. 88 down pit road for two tires, in hopes that it would propel him toward the top 10 in a last desperate run.
What it did was provide a highlight reel.
NASCAR’s new three attempts at a green-white-checkered finish made its debut as two more cautions flew, one on lap 199 and the other on lap 203. At the lap-199 caution, Earnhardt Jr. still sat 22nd, and at the lap-203 one, he was 10th.
When the final green flag flew, the winner looked like it was going to come down to Greg Biffle and Kevin Harvick.
As the white flag flew, Jamie McMurray made his move to the lead, but it was Earnhardt Jr. that was making his presence known.
In one lap, the man that won his first Daytona 500 six years and one day ago went from 10th to second, and McMurray’s back bumper off turn four to a standing ovation.
Immediately everyone went from congratulating Jamie McMurray to asking, “Where did Dale Earnhardt Jr. come from?”
After their cheering had subsided and their hands stopped shaking, Junior Nation finally had something good to talk about. They also could cheer and they shared their cheering with the world via the social networking site Twitter.
“HOLY Sh**! JR FINISHES 2nd!! I’m f’in shaking”
“Its like where the hell did Jr. come from. Jr. is BACK!!! From 10 to 2nd in 10 laps,” wrote one fan.
Another shared the sentiment, “And where the hell did Junior come from at the end?”
One fan was pleased with the attitude that Earnhardt Jr. showed after he exited his second place car: “That’s what Dale Jr. needed, a good finish and to be upset not winning!”
“WOWOWOWOWOWOWOW Tell me Junior can’t drive,” wrote another.
And, “How about JR!!” or “June Bug Dun GOOD!! ”
The words of praise and happiness kept coming, even from media members that were impressed with the late-race moves. Some fans were all too happy to quiet all the negative words their driver had been getting over the last year.
“Amazing end to the race!! Dale Jr. 10th to 2nd in a lap!! Haters sit down and shut up Jr. is back!!”
With Speedweeks complete and an awesome way to end the race, one fan had another thought: “If Dale Jr. drivers like that all season then he could be the champ!!”
But it wasn’t just race fans that were singing their praises and taking notice of Earnhardt Jr.’s maneuvers.
Ashley Allgaier, wife of Penske Racing Nationwide Series Justin Allgaier, even had something to say on her Twitter page: “HOW BOUT THAT JR!!!”
And then a few minutes later added, “All u Jr. haters (You know who u are) keep on hating bc that was bad ass...Don’t care where he was supposed to be on that restart What what!”
However, the best line of the night seemed to say it all and made a statement about anyone’s doubt in Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“He’s still got it. Dale Effin Junior.”