Dale Earnhardt Jr., stock car racing’s biggest celebrity, won the Daytona 500, stock car racing’s biggest event. It doesn’t get any better than that except, of course, for the fact it was a nightmare of a day with the longest delay in racing history thanks to rain, lightning and even tornado warnings.
A 6-hour, 22-minute delay started after only 37 laps. Fans were ordered out of the speedway. No doubt millions of TV viewers changed channels. NASCAR was determined not to call the race and have a Monday finish. That happened just two years ago and resulted in thousands of empty seats, miserable TV ratings and a solid punch to NASCAR’s image. The sport never completely recovered the remainder of the year.
But instead of NASCAR officials and fans bemoaning a miserable start to new racing season. Junior saved the day – maybe the year – when he took the checkered flag with some of his best driving, holding off a horde of challengers.
Junior’s honest to goodness excitement was a truly feel good moment. Sure, many would-be fans didn’t see the finish live because of the long delay, but in this age technology just about everyone has seen the finish thanks to replays on ESPN, FOX Sports and the Speed Channel. Even most news channels have shown the finish thanks to Junior’s popularity and the significance of the race.
His victory was so applauded that for the time being no one seems to care where Danica Patrick finished (40th) or how rookie Austin Dillon performed (9th) driving the No. 3 car.
Those are PR-created storylines. The fans’ love affair with Junior is real even if it hasn’t been earned. Junior’s career has been good but not great but he is the beloved son of Dale and he’s carried the Earnhardt name since his daddy was killed in ’01.
Junior’s winning on such a miserable day will, no doubt, cause a few raised eyebrows. Admittedly, I’m among the most cynical NASCAR observers, but even for a sport famous for dialing up miracles, this one felt genuine.
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