Dale Earnhardt, Jr. must stay out of trouble in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona to keep playoff hopes alive as he’s winless after 16 races and currently 22nd points.
Earnhardt and Daytona. Both go together like bread and butter but it has also been a love-hate relationship.
The Earnhardt family has seen the highest of highs with both Dale and Dale Jr. winning a combined three Daytona 500 victories and the lowest of lows with Dale’s death in 2001.
Entering Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 at the Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, Dale Jr. will make his last start at a venue the Earnhardt family has dominated the last 35+ years.
Things are off to a great start for Dale Jr. as he’ll lead the field to the green flag after capturing his 14th career pole Friday. The emotions have already set in and will continue as the race draws closer.
Dale Jr. is the pre-race and sentimental favorite like always but Saturday has implications more than any other race an Earnhardt has competed at Daytona.
Anything but a victory in his final appearance as a full-time driver will be a disappointment for Dale Jr. and Junior Nation.
Dale Jr. is coming into the 2.5-mile circuit with a sense of urgency.
He hasn’t won since the rain-shortened race at Phoenix International Raceway Nov. 15, 2015 and has struggled in 2017 with mediocre performances after having four runner-up finishes the first half of last season.
The pressure of Dale Jr. making the playoffs in his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season has taken its toll.
Despite having two straight top-10 finishes at Michigan and Sonoma, it hasn’t been a memorable season. His best finish was fifth at Texas—Dale Jr.’s only top-5 this season—but Dale Jr. has also failed to finish four times including NASCAR’s last trip at Daytona Feb. 26 when he got caught up in the big one, leaving his win count in the “Great American Race” at two (2004 and 2014).
Worse, he’s scored less than 10 points in six-out-of-16 starts that’s set him back to 22nd points, 34 points behind 16th place Clint Bowyer with only 10 regular season races remaining.
Junior Nation can tell his frustrations through countless heat in the moment interviews, showing his displeasure of not living up to his expectations after missing half of last season due to a concussion.
There hasn’t been an NASCAR driver who’s beaten themselves up more than Dale Jr. He wants his final season to be memorable with strong performances and race ways instead of lowlights such as engine failures and uncompetitive cars.
With all those low points, it puts Dale Jr.’s playoff aspirations in jeopardy and Daytona may be one of his last true chances of making the playoffs by winning instead of relying on points.
Dale Jr. has won at Daytona 17 times including two July victories, both memorable for different reasons.
No NASCAR fan can ever forget the July 7, 2001 race—the Cup drivers first trip to the 2.5-mile circuit since Earnhardt’s death—when Dale Jr. drove a similar driving style like his father and worked his way from sixth to first on the final restart to score his first of three Cup wins in 2001.
Dale Jr.’s victory was the final piece of the trilogy where Earnhardt fans and the sport itself overcame their grievances of Earnhardt’s passing. Fans cheered and shed tears when Dale Jr. and then-teammate Michael Waltrip hugged and celebrated the win together.
It took Dale Jr. 14 years to win again in July and it also shook the NASCAR world. Not because of Dale Jr. winning but for the horrific crash after the race that launched Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet—the same number his father became a legendary figure—into the catchfence.
Dale Jr. wasn’t thinking victory at Daytona, he was thinking of Dillon. The wreck showed a side not many drivers express, a concern for their competitors.
Dillon escaped without serious injury and ran the next race at Kentucky as Dale Jr. soldiered on with another victory late in the season.
With two Coke Zero 400 wins, a third may be as bigger than any of his 17 previous victories at Daytona. It’ll mean the world not just for Dale Jr. being a step closer of having a shot of finally winning that elusive championship but for Junior Nation, who’ve appreciated his contribution to the sport.
In an era where the sport has struggled to regain strong ratings and attendance like it used to, a victory can help the sport. When an Earnhardt is having success, people take notice and tune in to watch if they can continue their momentum.
Those denying Dale Jr.’s contribution has 20 races to figure it out. Without Dale Jr.’s popularity and passion for the sport, NASCAR wouldn’t have the spark it has had over the years in terms marketability and mainstream acceptance.
From countless promotions to being a household name in sports, Dale Jr. has been the one guy who’s transcended the sport in that level. Not many drivers have appeared in music videos, award shows or been granted the high luxury Dale Jr. has had in NASCAR.
Although not among the top 10 greatest drivers of all-time, Dale Jr. belongs among the top 10 most transcending drivers in NASCAR.
The sport will soldier on without Dale Jr. after 2017 with young guns like Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and points leader Kyle Larson. Time will tell if they’ll have a similar fanbase like Dale Jr. which will be the hardest challenge the sport will have but that’s for another time.
It’s win or bust for Dale Jr. but no matter what happens at Daytona Saturday, those two entities will forever be associated in NASCAR history with father and son winning a combined 51 times. They, better than anyone else know the dangers and maneuvers to conquer the demanding track.
Earnhardt and Daytona were meant to be a match made in heaven, sometimes hell. Their legacies parallel the Andretti’s and Unser’s legacies at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. They’ve witnessed the triumphs and tragedies a racing family can endure at one venue.
If Dale Jr. does win, it will be the best storybook ending to an incredible tale that’s spanned six decades when his grandfather Ralph made his Daytona debut in 1961.
In the foreseeable future, it won’t be the last time fans will see an Earnhardt at Daytona. Let’s not forget, Dale Jr. hasn’t counted out running the “World Center of Racing” after 2017 and likely do what Waltrip did at the end of his racing career, run exclusively on plate tracks like Daytona.
Also, his nephew Jeffrey competes in the sport’s highest level and if his career remains stable, he’ll carry the family torch for many years to come.
Without question, Saturday will signify the end of an era as people know it because without an Earnhardt at Daytona, a piece of the mystique the track has will be missing much like not having an Unser compete at Indy.
It will be an emotional ride as Dale Jr. will strap in his No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet for the final time at Daytona and people will be watching every move he makes and roar when he’s leading.
Who knows, there might be an earthquake feel when he crosses the line in first and uplift Junior Nation as they’ll have something to celebrate for the first time this season.