Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2004 Daytona 500 win uplifted NASCAR after father’s tragic death

DAYTONA BEACH — Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched his father’s frustration and failures from afar.

He wondered how a driver could dominate every race at Daytona International Speedway except the one that mattered most.

Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed 20 tries at the Daytona 500 to reach Victory Lane in 1998. When Dale Jr. got his opportunity, he was ready — only by then Dale Sr. was gone.

With the 66th running of Daytona 500 scheduled for Sunday, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory 20 years ago during the Great American Race underscored the emotions surrounding his father’s tragic death at the iconic track in 2001 and allowed NASCAR to heal.

The victory was popular and cathartic for a sport still operating in a funk since losing its biggest star in the worst possible way.

“To see him win was just something that the whole Earnhardt and NASCAR community needed as a shot in the arm to just to help calm the pain,” Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace told the Orlando Sentinel. “It was a feel-good moment for the sport.”

The driver known as “Junior” had already delivered a Hollywood script moment when he won Daytona’s 400-miler on July 4th weekend just five months after Earnhardt Sr.’s death.

Earnhardt Jr. passed six cars during the final six laps and held off teammate Michael Waltrip to capture the checkered flag. The two drivers then parked in the infield and celebrated on their car hoods in front of 100,000 fans.

“That the one that resonates most to me, in respect to Dale and his father,” two-time Daytona 500 winner Jimmie Johnson said Wednesday.

Yet, winning a Daytona 500 would be monumental given Junior’s family history.

Earnhardt Sr.’s close-calls and failures haunted him until his breakthrough 1998 win as a 46-year-old. By then, he’d compiled 31 of his 34 victories on the iconic 2.5-mile oval, including the Duels, Shootouts, IROC events and Busch Series 300s to go with two Cup Series wins in the summer race.

Toss in an astounding 10 wins at Talladega Speedway, a record likely to stand the test of time, and Dale Sr. was a superspeedway maestro.

“He was great everywhere, but he was just phenomenal at those places,” said former Cup Series driver Jeff Burton, now an analyst for NBC Sports. “And his son watched that and absorbed it and studied it and recognized that it wasn’t luck. It wasn’t just the car.”

Driving for his family-owned team, Earnhardt Jr. always had boundless resources and cutting-edge equipment. But his restrictor-plate racing know-how elevated him.

“Most drivers would say, ‘Well, hell, if I try to do what he’s doing it wouldn’t work because my car is not that fast,’” Burton said. “Fair enough. But he also knew how and when [to make a move] because other people drove fast cars and didn’t win.”

Earnhardt Jr.’s skills were in full flight during Speedweeks 2004.

He finished runner-up in the Bud Shootout exhibition race and won the first of the two Gatorade Twin 125 Duels to earn the third spot in the lineup. But an engine change sent polesitter Greg Biffle to the back of the field and moved Junior to the front row.

On race day, president George W. Bush delivered the command for drivers to start their engines and 21-year old LeAnn Rimes sang the national anthem to set the stage and energize a sellout crowd.

Once the green flag dropped, Junior seized control to lead the first 29 laps and signal he was the driver to beat. Eventually a two-man race unfolded between with Tony Stewart.

The two young stars raced the final 120 laps under the green flag without a caution.

Earnhardt Jr. bided his time and sought to set up Stewart for a pass. Considered by many his generation’s top talent, Stewart could no longer hold off Junior coming down the backstretch into Turns 3 and 4 of Lap 180.

Earnhardt finally grabbed the lead coming out of Turn 2 on Lap 181 and never looked back as his No. 8 Chevrolet held off all comers.

When he crossed the finish line, Earnhardt Jr. was hit with a wave of emotion.

“It wasn’t elation like you traditionally feel anytime you’re victorious in something. It was relief,” he recently told The Athletic.

Junior’s 10 Cup Series win in just his fifth season put him on an impressive pace. But he never approached his father’s 76 victories and record-tying seven championships.

Earnhardt Jr. retired after the 2017 season amid concussion concerns and with 26 wins, including the 2014 Daytona 500. He also won the sport’s most popular driver award 15 times, beginning in 2003 — two years after his father received it posthumously.

Now 49, Junior remains tied closely to the sport as lead analyst NBC Sports. Earnhardt Sr.’s connection to the fanbase is still strong, too. Black flags with No. 3 T-shirts featuring his visage and sundry salutes to the “The Intimidator” will be hard to miss Sunday.

Earnhardt Jr. began his own legacy six years to the day of Earnhardt Sr.’s most gratifying win, proving he’d learned from his father’s struggles and perseverance while ultimately lifting a dark cloud over their sport.

“I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel,” Earnhardt Jr. said at the time. “I’m glad I ain’t gotta worry about it no more. Man, this is awesome…

“He was over in the passenger side riding with me. I’m sure he was having a blast.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at