Finally, a breakthrough victory for Dale Jr.?

July, 3, 2010
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Maybe now he can shed the demons, shake the ghost, clear his head, shrug the monkey, get on with his life, recover his career -- now that he has done something the old man never did: drive a blue-and-yellow, Wrangler-sponsored car into Victory Lane in a points race at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to do just this one thing, just this once.

True, it happened in a Nationwide race, NASCAR's version of Triple-A baseball -- but, hey, don't major league teams send pitchers down to the minors for little stints to recover some confidence?

Earnhardt handled it with dignity and confidence, without so much as a crack in his voice, as he told how anything but winning would have been total failure: "If you didn't win, what a waste of time," he told ESPN reporters in Victory Lane.

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Earnhardt Fans
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesFans of Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- and the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. -- hold up three fingers in support of the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet during Friday night's Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona.

I had honestly thought he was wasting his time, thought it was yet another commercial promotion -- can you blame me, with all the profitable folderol that goes on in NASCAR? And so, honestly, I watched the Subway Jalapeno 250, a prelim to Saturday night's Coke Zero 400, from my hotel room.

Turns out it wasn't all crass promotion, as is so common in NASCAR. "We just carved some money out of the personal services contract," Earnhardt said of the deal he has with Wrangler to do TV commercials.

It was something he wanted to do, had to do, and surely the ghost was whispering to him as he drove through the fourth turn, past where his father was killed in 2001, on the final lap in a car numbered 3 for both of them. Surely the ghost whispered the old Earnhardt mantra, "Second place is just the first loser."

The ghost and the legend began here in a black car. The last year Dale Sr. drove a Wrangler car, blue and yellow, Junior was 13 and in military school, sent there largely on the decision of the stepmother who has troubled him since he was 6 -- his father's third wife, Teresa Earnhardt.

Junior was something of a runt in 1987, and once on the parade grounds at Oak Ridge Military Academy in North Carolina, I saw him break formation on a Friday afternoon and run and hug his father as hard as a kid can hug a father, and Dale Sr. stood there with his arms hung down beside him, seeming not to know, really, how to respond.

It was gut wrenching.

That's the way it always was with them, Junior seeking his father's esteem with all his heart, eventually hurtling uncertainly around racetracks chasing love.

Leaving Oak Ridge that same day, I remember that Dale Jr.'s older sister, Kelley, was unhappy all the way home in the station wagon, no matter how Teresa schmoozed her.

That's the way it was, all the way until 2007, when Dale Jr. and Kelley broke away from Teresa, and signed with the genial and fatherly Rick Hendrick for the 2008 season.

The rest, of course, has been historic disappointment. Junior had won but one points race for his de facto surrogate father, at Michigan in 2008.

But this time, "Everybody pitched in," Junior said Friday night. God, I hate that term, "Junior," and I think he has lived through enough to be called simply "Dale" now, and that's how I always address him: Dale. He has earned that.

Anyway, this "promotion," as The Associated Press called it -- but I don't have the heart to call it that anymore -- was a cooperative effort among Hendrick Motorsports (engines), Senior's longtime car owner Richard Childress (rights to the number), Dale Jr. and Kelley's JR Motorsports, and Teresa.

Dale -- the living one -- also had the benefit of his Cup pit crew from Hendrick.

This was Dale's first win in a NASCAR points race of any kind since Michigan '08, and his detractors -- and they are many -- had spat on his name, that name that is such a burden to bear, as if he were worse than a has-been, as if he were a never-was, even though he has 18 Cup wins.

Others pitched in, too: Kevin Harvick, the one chosen to sit in Senior's seat in the spring of '01, didn't get a very good restart on the final green-white-checkered. Joey Logano pushed Earnhardt way out front on that final restart and then wasn't able to mount much of a challenge those last two laps of overtime.

It was billed as a tribute to Dale Earnhardt. It turned out to be a tribute to the guts, the perseverance, the psyche, of Dale Earnhardt Jr.

He might never win seven championships, and he's a long way from NASCAR's Hall of Fame.

But Friday night, he drove a blue-and-yellow car into Victory Lane at Daytona.

"This is it," said the only living Dale Earnhardt. "No more 3 for me."



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