Even though he is retiring as a full-time driver after this season, the popular driver has not shut the driver’s side door on someday coming back to run a future Daytona 500.
BY MIKE BIANCHI
The official name of the race was the Coke Zero 400, but for this one night it was the Great American Goodbye.
To not just a driver, but to a symbol, a nostalgia and a way of life.
You see, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the last bastion and bridge to what NASCAR used to be. He is the lone remaining driver who is old enough and popular enough to evoke memories of NASCAR’s bygone boom era.
“He became my favorite driver because he was his daddy’s son,” said Tommy Cowart, a landscaper from Jacksonville as he flipped the pork chops he was cooking on his gas grill in the Daytona infield Sunday. “When I watch Dale Jr. race, it makes me think back to when I fell in love with NASCAR.”
He takes a swig of his Budweiser.
“I don’t know if I’ll love it as much when he’s gone.”
Forced into wall
For Junior Nation, this was one last journey through the past.
One final run at “Daletona.’’
It’s just too bad, Junior’s Fourth of July fireworks fizzled into Daytona dud.
Just when it appeared he might be able to conjure up one last bit of Earnhardt wizardry after he went from being two laps down to climbing back to sixth place, his night ended on Lap 105 when Kevin Harvick spun in front of him and forced Junior into the wall.
A grateful driver
You could almost hear a collective sigh emanating from every corner of the track, and Junior seemed bothered he could not deliver a victory for the fans.
“Everything we do is for the fans,” Earnhardt said. “The reaction from the fans tonight made me feel great. Hopefully, we can turn this around the rest of the season and thank them for everything they’ve done.”
Hard to believe that on the Fourth of July weekend, Dale Jr. could be red, white and through at the track where NASCAR was born and where his daddy died.
Yes, I said he “could be” through at Daytona, but nothing is etched in asphalt. Even though he is retiring as a full-time driver after this season, he has not shut the driver’s side door on someday coming back to run a future Daytona 500.
But who knows if or when that will ever happen. Which is why there were so many cheers, tears and cold beers in Dale Jr.’s honor on Saturday night.
Track officials displayed Earnhardt’s No. 88 logo on the tri-oval grass, played a tribute video before the race and urged fans to give Junior a standing ovation on Lap 88 of the race.
It seemed as if the entire sport was rooting for him to win and not just because it may have been his last race here, but because he desperately needed a victory to prolong his final season.
He hasn’t won a race in two years and he is 22nd in points this season. A restrictor-plate master and a magician at Daytona’s iconic 2.5-mile tri-oval, this race represented Earnhardt’s best chance to make the playoffs.
After all, this is the place in which the Earnhardt name will forever be associated. It is where Dale Earnhardt died 16 years ago.
It is where Dale Jr. won the Fourth of July Race five months after burying his father. Those are two seminal moments in NASCAR history, but Dale Jr. has other memories too.
He remembers being a kid in Daytona and hanging out with all the other NASCAR kids during those carefree summer days at what was then the Firecracker 400.
Back then, all the drivers and their families stayed in oceanfront hotels where the kids and their daddies could be seen body surfing in the ocean or horsing around in the pool.
“I remember falling off a high-dive one time and thinking I’d killed myself,” Junior recalls with a smile splashed across his face.
“Just being around in those hotels and seeing everybody was cool. You’d have drivers in the pool after practice. It seemed like it was just us there — just the families. It’s changed a lot now. It’s not done like that anymore.”
Everything is changing in NASCAR — and not necessarily for the better.
Racing officials will tell you NASCAR is in good shape with a lot of skilled young racers ready to navigate the sport into the future. Secretly, though, they wish they could slam it into reverse and drive NASCAR back into the past.
In the last dozen years, NASCAR’s TV ratings have dropped nearly 50 percent and attendance has plunged at a similar rate. In the past two years, massive names like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired.
The last lap
And now Dale Jr., who fans have voted as NASCAR’s most popular driver for 14 years running, is leaving too.
The night the lights went out in “Daletona.’’
Except there would not be one final victory lap in his famous No. 88 Chevy.
Instead, Junior drove away from his wrecked car on a golf cart as reporters and fans chased after him on this farewell Fourth of July weekend.
Bye, bye, Mr. American Pie.