DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – "WOOOOO!!!!!!"
Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off his victory in the Daytona 500, strode into the Daytona media center, normally a staid workplace where open displays of emotion are frowned upon, and bellowed in celebration.
"I bet nobody's yelled like that in here in 30 years," Earnhardt said as he sat down, grinning through his red beard. "People used to yell like that all the time when they won."
It was a slick, if perhaps unintentional, bridge to NASCAR's past, a past that has dogged Earnhardt like an extra passenger in his car ... or, more accurately, like a cinder block tied to his rear bumper. Earnhardt, because of his surname, can't ever escape the past, but with this triumphant victory, at long last he appears to have wrestled it at least to a draw.
Every Daytona 500 carries the weight of history and memory for Earnhardt, but this one held particular meaning. The fabled No. 3 of his father returned to the race for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Sr. died driving it, and the event was heralded with even more significance than a presidential visit. Earnhardt and everyone associated with him patiently answered the questions about the 3's return with the same line: it's fine, it's no problem, let's get racing.
Once the green flag dropped, Earnhardt for once outran his past – literally, in the case of the race standings, and metaphorically, in the case of claiming Daytona as his own. He's got "Junior" in his name, yes, but with this, the best race he's ever run, he's his own man.
"I thought about holding up three fingers as I was driving down the straightaway," Earnhardt said, "but I wanted Steve [Letarte, crew chief] and everyone to enjoy it."
No doubt about it, this was Earnhardt's virtuoso performance. Consider what he had to overcome: A six-plus-hour rain delay. A hellbent, three-wide, every-lap-counts stampede in every turn. A rearview mirror full of three former champions in Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon, as well as the hottest driver at SpeedWeeks, Denny Hamlin (who won the Sprint Unlimited and his 150-mile qualifying race). Wide-open laps followed by treacherous restarts. Earnhardt came through on top every time. Every single time.
Earnhardt made sure to thank every member of his team in a series of sweaty, confetti-soaked embraces in victory lane. But his reason for winning this race was far more primal: "That car that I drove tonight, we got along," he said. "You know, we worked as a unit. It just happens ... The difference between the right car and what I've been driving is this much" – holding his finger and thumb an inch apart – "that's how close it is out there. You know it when you've got that much more."
Could Earnhardt have won this kind of race in 2006, 2008, 2010? Probably not. There's something more about him now, some focus, some sense of direction that he was lacking earlier in his career. He's always had the skill, he's always had the opportunity, he's always had access to the best equipment, but he's rarely had everything line up at once. There's a weight off his shoulders now, though, and ironically, that might make him better prepared to handle the responsibility of being the face of NASCAR.
"When you're close enough to the front to win races, there's a lot on the line, it's a big race, and you want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly," he said. "You realize at that moment, especially inside of 20 laps to go, you're in the top five, 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. There's so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it's a heavy weight. You get so caught up in trying to do what you can to make that happen that when you finish second, it's really disappointing ... It's not a weight when you're able to deliver. It's a weight when you're not able to deliver."
After bottoming out in 2009 with a 25th-place finish, a year in which breaking into the teens was considered a good afternoon, Earnhardt has grown steadily. He's not necessarily a Kyle Busch/Jimmie Johnson-style threat to win every week, but a strong performance from Earnhardt is becoming the rule rather than the exception. That's the product of a number of different elements, but first and foremost, he's now got the right team around him.
"I see him maturing," Kelley Earnhardt, Dale's sister, said in victory lane. "His relationship with Steve really is the foundation of that. As a crew chief, he's a constant believer and constant cheerleader. Steve doesn't get negative, and that's helped him mature as a driver."
"It's like when someone loses weight but you see them every day," Letarte said. "You don't notice it as it happens. He's been giving 100 percent for a long time. It's just that now he's getting better. I've done a better job, he's done a better job, engineers have, everyone has, and it's added up to quite a stack."
In victory lane, Earnhardt had a hug and a smile for everyone who came within arm's reach. He spoke in interview after interview, his slightly cockeyed grin evident at every turn. And more than two hours after the checkered flag, he finally left behind his promotional obligations, going to, as he put it, "have a few beers." But before then, he offered up some prophetic words that should warm the heart of Junior Nation:
"Just when you think things are as good as they can get," he said, "they get better."