Saturday, April 21, 2018
Sports

Fennelly: Dale Earnhardt Jr. has seen best and worst at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH

Hard to believe it has been 15 years since Dale Earnhardt lost his life at Daytona International Speedway as his son, Dale Jr., and Michael Waltrip raced for the win at the Daytona 500.

The day the music died.

Hard to believe it has been 15 years since Dale Jr. won the Daytona summer race, known then as the Pepsi 400 — his first time back at the track after his father's death.

An emotional storybook if there ever was one.

Daytona is where Dale Jr. had the worst day of his life. And it's where he has had some of the best days of his life. The win in 2001. Two Daytona 500 victories. A victory in last summer's Coke Zero 400.

"I've got to come in here with that kind of confidence," Earnhardt said.

His No. 88 car is winless this season coming into tonight's Coke Zero 400. Earnhardt is 12th in points, a precarious spot given no wins heading into the final 10 events before the Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship. A victory tonight would all but lock him in.

"It creates a lot of anxiety between me and (crew chief) Greg (Ives)," he said. "We're both not happy with where we are in the points. Wondering and worrying about making the Chase shouldn't be something this team should be concerned with, because I think we're way better than where we are."

Junior (hard to believe he's 41) has never been as good as his father, but that's no crime. Who is? And Junior hasn't been devoured by that giant shadow. He doesn't have a series championship, but he has 26 Sprint Cup wins. He's annually voted the sport's most popular driver. He connects on social media. Junior is cool.

"Dale, he was The Intimidator, but underneath that hard shell, he was tough and sweet," Michael Waltrip said. "Dale Jr. is the same way. There's a lot there. There's a lot of personality, a lot of heart, a lot of kindness."

Like his father before him, Junior is a wizard on the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. It runs in the family. And it runs good.

"It seems that's the way plate racing is. It's either all or nothing," Junior said. "There's really no middle ground. You've got to get yourself out there and put yourself in some wild, compromising situations that are touch and go. You've got to put yourself in some situations that are really sketchy. In plate racing, it's as hairy as you can stand. It's about as much excitement, nerve wracking and anxiety as you can stomach."

But Earnhardt wrecked at both Daytona and Talladega this season, wrecking his beloved "Amelia," the name he gave his restrictor-plate racer that had won four times. Amelia has since been laid to rest in the auto graveyard on Earnhardt's property in North Carolina.

"We're not going to be naming cars anymore," Earnhardt said with a smile. "I knew as soon as we did that, it sort of took off and put a lot of pressure on that car and the team. These days, you only keep a car for maybe a year before it's unrecognizable or it's cut out of the herd."

It's hard to blame Earnhardt for being nostalgic. The other night, NBCSN rebroadcast his 2001 Pepsi 400 win. Junior, at home, exchanged tweets with fans during the replay.

"It was a super treat for me," Earnhardt said. "I was humbled how everybody was plugged in. That was a special night. I'm glad people think it was cool."

At one point, he tweeted, "Chug a beer. And pour one out for the old man."

We were again reminded of Junior's old man Friday at Daytona. In a frightening way. During morning practice, defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch cut a tire and struck the wall doing 193 mph. Huge, scary front-end impact, eerily similar to the wreck that killed Dale Earnhardt.

Busch wasn't injured. He hopped from his demolished car. Fifteen years ago, he's probably a dead man. Score one for safety improvements. Safe walls. Crush panels. HANS devices. And all it took for NASCAR to spring into action was losing its greatest star, 15 years ago. Hard to believe. Even now.

Earnhardts and Daytona are forever linked. Triumph and tragedy — and triumph. It's the worst place. It's the best place. Dale Earnhardt Jr. hopes for the best tonight. He needs to get in gear.

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