The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

February 25, 2014

Junior is back in victory lane

The Commercial-News

---- — DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The post-race celebration was fitting for NASCAR’s most-popular driver.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who snapped his 55-race winless streak by winning Sunday night’s Daytona 500, did multiple burnouts as his legion of fans, known as Junior Nation, lined the fences at the Daytona International Speedway.

After saluting the fans, who braved heavy rains and a more than six-hour delay, Earnhardt made his way to victory lane, stopping just long enough to pick up car owner Rick Hendrick.

“Man, it feels incredible,’’ said Earnhardt. “It’s the greatest feeling you can have as a driver in NASCAR at a single event in a single day.’’

That emotion was quite evident as Earnhardt sprinted into the media center for his post-race news conference, nearly two hours after the race had ended, covered in beer and champagne. With his arms raised, Earnhardt screamed “Woo!”

“I bet someone hasn’t come in here and screamed in 30 years,” he said early Monday morning. “They used to!”

This is the second time that Earnhardt has won the Great American Race, with his first Daytona 500 victory coming in 2004.

So, which one is better?

“I was thinking about that when I crossed the finish line,’’ he said. “I was relieved that I’ve done it again and I’ve done it with the people I’m with. Initially the reaction was, this is better because I’m back in Victory Lane.

“It’s different because it’s the people, you know. It’s better because you had a taste of it before. To win it the first time, you are blown away and sort of overwhelmed. The experience is a blur. It doesn’t sink in. You don’t absorb much of the whole thing. I can’t even remember half of it even after the fact, what we did that week. It was just all so much of a flash.’’

And that was one of the reasons that his post-race celebration was so exciting.

“I really enjoyed driving down in front of the fans there,’’ he said. “I was having the time of my life inside that car going down the front straightaway.

“When I got to Victory Lane, I couldn’t wait to hug everybody, just enjoy it. Didn’t do that the first time because you’re just blown away.’’

Earnhardt, who had finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500s, isn’t surprised that it took him 10 years to get back on top of NASCAR’s Super Bowl.

“The competition’s changed so much,’’ he said. “The way the rules are, the way NASCAR has transformed over the years — there’s no room between the competition. There’s just no tolerance, everybody’s basically got the same car out there, and it just comes down to who can make the right moves.’’

On Sunday night, Earnhardt had the answer for every driver that attempted to get past him in the final 40 laps but in the end, it was the No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet crossing the finish line first.

But he didn’t just win the race, he pretty much dominated it, leading six times for a race-high 54 laps.

Things did get crazy at the end with four multi-car crashes, including on with seven laps left that was triggered by pole-sitter Austin Dillon, driving the No. 3 — Earnhardt’s father’s number which was making its return to NASCAR for the first time since his death in 2001.

On the restart, Earnhardt got a great jump on Brad Keselowski with the help of teammate Jeff Gordon, but Denny Hamlin, who was trying to be the first driver to win the Sprint Unlimited, a Budweiser Duel and the Daytona 500 in the same year, was there on the final circuit but couldn’t get close enough to make a move.

“We could fight off battle after battle. We got a little help at the end there from Jeff to get away on the restart,” Earnhardt said. “This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening. I never take this for granted, man because it doesn’t happen twice, let alone once.”

Hamlin wound up second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, in spite of having an issue with his radio when the race resumed.

“It was tough and disappointing because I definitely could have used my spotter there at the end,” Hamlin said. “I’m trying to look up at the scoreboard, trying to figure out how many laps are left. I’m so 50-50 on whether I’m (mad) or I’m happy. I just don’t know. Any other year, I probably would have been jumping up and down.”

Keselowski finished third, while Gordon and last year’s winner, Jimmie Johnson, rounded out the top five — giving Hendrick Motorsports three of the top five.

One additional benefit to Sunday’s win for Earnhardt is that under the new win-and-get-in format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, Earnhardt can spend the next 25 races preparing for the postseason.

“We might be in the Chase — I ain’t going to worry about that,” Earnhardt said from Victory Lane. “Trust me, man, we’re going to have a blast this year.”

Barnette, Mears rally to finish 10th

Casey Mears, represented by Danville agent Doug Barnette, drove the Geico Chevrolet to a 10th-place finish in Sunday night’s race.

Mears, who started 26th, was running 19th when the big rain storm hit the speedway. When the race resumed, Mears got as high as fourth in the running order on the 53rd circuit and then he was second on the 73rd lap before hitting pit road.

But a penalty on the pit stop for speeding on pit road dropped the driver from Bakersfield, Calif., out of the top 20. Mears, who seemingly avoided the all four cautions during the final 40 laps, restarted 16th for the final two-lap shootout and brought home the Germain Racing Chevy for a 10th-place finish.

Polesitter Dillon is tops among Daytona rookies

Austin Dillon, the grandson of Richard Childress, captured the pole last Sunday at the Daytona International Speedway in the first race for the No. 3 Chevrolet since the death of Dale Earnhardt in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Dillon, driving for Richard Childress Racing, led the first lap, but the rookie driver from Welcome, N.C., was out of the top-five in just a few laps but he wound up finishing ninth. It was the highest finish for a rookie driver.

Alex Bowman of Tucson, Ariz., was next with a 23rd-place finish, while Riverton native Justin Allgaier, driving the Brandt Professional Agriculture Chevrolet, was 27th in Sunday’s race.