DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — At 7:49 a.m. Monday, still in a fuzzy daze after a couple of hours’ sleep, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a minute to pose in front of a statue outside Daytona International Speedway. Click went the cellphone.
Dale smiled, capturing an image that will be cherished forevermore: Father and son, celebrating a Daytona 500 victory.
“Look who I ran into at the Daytona Experience. Dad’s Happy!” Earnhardt tweeted.
The old man would have scoffed at this new-fangled Twitter thing. Junior kinda felt the same way, even though he had a growing account with 231,459 followers. That’s a lot of followers for a man with zero tweets as of late Sunday night. He didn’t even know his password.
Then Junior sent out his first tweet in the wee hours of Monday, shortly after he won the 2014 Daytona 500. “Tonight seemed like as good a night as any to join Twitter. How is everyone doin?” he asked, posting a picture of himself with the trophy.
His account has been blowing up ever since: 416K-plus, and rising by the thousands every hour.
The seismic impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500 will be hard to understand for the casual sports fan.
Earnhardt is no Michael, Messi or Manning by any stretch. But within NASCAR’s universe, there is no other. He has been voted the sport’s most popular athlete 11 consecutive years.
That is why as the final laps clicked down, photographers wearing headphones along the base of the track could still hear fans screaming every time Junior crossed the start/finish line.
The heavens already had parted once in Daytona, and then it happened again hours later. ’Round midnight, as the cars sped down Daytona International Speedway on the final lap, the NASCAR Nation shed tears, witnessing history.
Junior was rambling toward the checkered flag, free from all the heartbreak that has burdened one of the first families of NASCAR.
He contemplated putting three fingers in the air to honor his daddy — who died in this place 13 years ago and is memorialized by the statue — and then pulled back, trying not to send mixed signals to all those fans who endured the rain and the wind and the mud to cheer for the only driver who mattered.
It was his day, his night.
“You realize at that moment there’s countless people watching on television, there’s countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching,” Earnhardt said. “There’s so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it’s a heavy weight.”
Yes it is. Junior considered ditching the sport shortly after his father died on the last lap of the Daytona 500. Who would want to sign up for all that baggage? It was a good thing, but still he could never be his own man.
He seems comfortable now with the daunting expectations. He is the face of NASCAR. That will never change until the day he retires.
No worries, he’s got some time. He will turn 40 in October and has gotten a bit more introspective. Call it an older man’s wisdom.
But there’s something else to Junior. It’s a simple thing called happiness. He is in a good place, surrounded by people who care about him, from his girlfriend Amy Reimann to crew chief Steve Letarte to owner Rick Hendrick.
He picked up Hendrick for a victory spin Sunday night, and the old guy thought he might be taking a dive around the tri-oval any minute.
The good times continued as Junior entered the Media Center screaming, “Whohooo!”
Why not? It had been a while since Junior checked into Victory Lane, 55 races to be exact. He won for the second time in almost six years. All the while, Junior Nation kept waiting, wondering and, at times, whining.
“A lot of pressure,” Hendrick said. “It was an awful lot of pressure. I felt like I let him down. He felt like he let me down. But we locked arms and said, ‘We’re going to figure it out.’ ”
Now they coast. A victory essentially assures them a spot in the newfangled postseason Chase and, just perhaps, more poignant photos to share. The goal of winning Junior’s first Cup title now is officially within reach.
We suspect dad is happy with the developments.