Junior still proud of his Daytona 500 win

February, 22, 2012

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- You could hear the emotion in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s voice, see it in his facial expression and demeanor, as he described how it felt to win the 2004 Daytona 500.

He was so poignant, it seems a waste of time to describe it and put it into words better than his.

Simply read and enjoy.

"When you win that race, it's so hard to explain," Earnhardt said Wednesday at Daytona International Speedway. "Everything that you … it's just really, really hard to explain. … All the things that you want out of life, all the pressures that you put on yourself or you feel from other people, all the things you want to accomplish …

"Everybody sort of has this mountain in front of them that they put in front of themselves they want to climb. … For a moment, for a day, you're at the top of that mountain."

Earnhardt looked down, reaching to places in his mind and heart he doesn't often share. He made you understand why grown men are willing to risk life and limb going 200 mph in 3,400-pound machines around this 2.5-mile track.

He made you understand why his father did all that was humanly possible to guarantee that his son or Michael Waltrip captured the 2001 500 on what became the final lap of his life.

"Nothing matters," Earnhardt continued. "All of your wants and all of your needs and problems you have, the little petty things that bother you, everything goes away. You just feel like you've realized your full potential. Everything is just sort of maxed out for the day, all the things you wanted to achieve.

"Obviously, you set a lot of goals for yourself and that's just one of the goals, but just for a moment, just for that one day, whether it be 30 minutes or an hour after that race, as soon as you cross the finish line, you feel like it can't get any better than this. It's a pretty incredible emotion. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity, experience. It is such a special, special moment."

The deadline room was dead silent as Earnhardt continued as though he were delivering a Shakespearean monologue. He was mesmerizing. That NASCAR's most popular driver hasn't won in 129 races didn't seem nearly as significant.

This is why Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Mark Martin, just to name a few, want to win the "Great American Race" so badly.

This is why Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were reduced to tears of joy after waiting so long -- Earnhardt 20 years and Waltrip 17 -- to visit Victory Lane here.

This race defines careers. Michael Waltrip was mediocre, under most standards, with only four wins in 766 Sprint Cup starts. But almost every time he is introduced it is as a two-time Daytona 500 champion, and that doesn't sound mediocre at all.

Stewart can't get through an interview this week without being asked how badly he wants to win this race. He makes it sound as though it's not a huge deal, but you know it is.

Kyle Busch has a Daytona driver rating of 98.7, better than 500 winners Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick, but that means nothing compared to the raw exhilaration of hoisting the 500 trophy into the air.

You can feel how much Edwards, the pole-sitter for this race, wants to add the 500 to his résumé, how much he wants to feel what Earnhardt has.

Every driver in the field does.

Many of us laughed two years ago when Jamie McMurray said he wouldn't trade his win in the 500 and Brickyard 400 that season for a chance to be in the Chase and race for the title. After listening to Earnhardt, his argument seems a little more believable.

"Every time I see a replay of me and my crew celebrating below the flag stand, it all comes back so clearly," Earnhardt concluded. "Every time I see it, I just think about how fortunate I was to have won that race.

"Some of the greatest drivers come through this sport and don't win it. It just doesn't seem right … only certain ones get to see that opportunity."

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?