February 24, 2014

Winning at Daytona meant world to Earnhardt

The driver had been winless for 10 years at the race.

People connect with Dale Earnhardt Jr. because they sense that he is genuine.

It is moments like Sunday night, in the hours after his Daytona 500 victory, that tell them so.

Earnhardt stood in Victory Lane out of breath, speechless.

He tried to remember what he is supposed to say — thank his sponsors, his team — and almost didn’t know where to start.

For some drivers, the Victory Lane procedure is routine. They’re there four or five times a year.

But Earnhardt thought carefully about every word, interrupting himself with glances up, down, right and left, allowing himself to take in the confetti-filled night.

He was living in the moment: standing there a winner in the biggest race in the sport, its most popular driver, cheered by thousands who also loved his father, who died in the same place, in the same race, 13 years earlier.

Nothing about it was routine.

“Man, it feels incredible,” he said. “You know, I was looking back at winning this race in 2004. It’s the greatest feeling you can have as a driver in NASCAR at a single event in a single day. Just trying to explain what that feeling is to people, I’ve been trying to tell people for 10 years what that felt like. It’s just hard to put it into words what winning this race really means to you.”

He didn’t have to. Everyone knew what it meant.

Earnhardt bounded into the media center at almost 1 a.m., ready to meet with reporters, and let out a “Whooo!” He gave a tight hug to the NASCAR official who moderates the press conferences. He had the weight of being Dale Earnhardt Jr. —the son of a champion and yet winless for 10 years at Daytona; for most of 10 years everywhere, truthfully — off his shoulders.

“It’s not a weight when you’re able to deliver,” he said. “It’s a weight when you’re not able to deliver. When people say you’re the face of the sport, you’re running fifth or 10th every week, it’s very challenging because you want to deliver and you’re not delivering.

This brings me a lot of joy. I look forward to going and doing all the media all week long and representing the sport.”

Earnhardt even lived up to his promise to join Twitter if he won the race.

His account, @DaleJr, had a couple hundred thousand followers for years before he sent a tweet.

Later, he sent his first one: “Tonight seemed like as good a night as any as any to join Twitter. How is everyone doin?”

Another one, Monday morning, was a selfie in front of the Dale Earnhardt Sr. statue at Daytona: “Look who I ran into at the Daytona Experience. Dad’s Happy!”

Later, he tweeted from The Late Show in New York City. And then, on the way to Bristol, Conn., for a round of ESPN shows.

Every tweet was hashtagged: #2XDaytona500Champion

Social media allows fans to connect in another way with their favorite athletes. It looks like Earnhardt is getting the hang of it.

“You know, the fans are so supportive. They stick with you. We put them through so much,” he said. “We ask so much of them to plug into this sport, to be a part of it. You think about that. Then you think, on a smaller scale, of your personal fans, the fans that pull for your team, what I’ve gone through as a driver. The lows you go through, they’re with you. They’re with you in the highs, obviously.

“We went through some pretty bad lows. They’re still there. I know when I drove down that front straightaway — I know it wasn’t, but it seems like everybody that was here was cheering. I know we don’t have every fan out there, but it was certainly a happy crowd. I really feed off of that. That is as key to the moment, enjoying the moment, as anything.”

It was a genuine moment to enjoy.

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