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Fans, NASCAR won along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Daytona 500

- tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com
Monday, Feb. 24, 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. did post-Daytona 500 interviews Monday until almost 3 a.m., and then he found his team. He also found that the spirits, as he calls them, had been drained.

Come on. The man won a fantastic Daytona 500. Somebody find him a cool spirit. Somebody did.

“We just sat around and talked about how cool it was, and punching each other in the shoulder until about 4, then I had to hang it up,” Earnhardt says .

Earnhardt didn’t retire early as a concession to age – he turns 40 in October. It was a concession to his schedule. The race winner reports to Daytona USA Monday at about 8 a.m. He figured he needed an hour of sleep.

Talk to Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team owner Rick Hendrick and you understand why fans showed up at the track before 8 a.m. Sunday, sat through a six-hour rain delay and stayed for a race that ended after 11 p.m.

An Earnhardt victory is what many of them, as well as NASCAR, sought. Should the sport pretend it didn’t? The most popular driver won the most popular race.

Something else to understand: Not a thing Earnhardt says Monday implies that he played anything more than a small part of it in the victory.

“He doesn’t give himself enough credit,” Hendrick says.

That is high praise.

Earnhardt’s team supplied a great car and great pit stops, Letarte called a great race and Earnhardt drove one. He says he didn’t want to “snooker” the leaders. He wanted to be the leader.

He led 54 laps, 25 more than anybody else, got a huge boost from Jeff Gordon when he needed it and held off a field desperate to be where he was.

“They were like an orchestra,” Hendrick says, talking about the fluidity and timing of the late-race Gordon-Earnhardt move

Earnhardt, who wears a checked shirt and jeans, says “The car was too good for me not to win this race.”

Every time somebody gives Earnhardt an opportunity take credit, he blocks it the way he did Denny Hamlin on lap 200.

After the breakfast Monday, Earnhardt would talk briefly to fans, head to the airport, fly to New York and spend most of the day there. Monday night he would go to Bristol, Conn., and the offices of ESPN. Later, there would be a stop in Austin, Texas, and in Las Vegas, and then he’d catch up with his team in Phoenix, where they race Sunday.

He also has scheduled sleep. It will come in March.

“I look forward to talking about my team,” Earnhardt says. “Talking about Steve (Letarte), and talking about the job they did, talking about the car they had. Just express my appreciation for everybody that had a hand in putting that car out there.”

“We won a big race,” he says. “We put a lot of effort into it. I’m going to make sure everybody hears about it.”

During a lull a voice comes from the floor below, where fans gather.

“Earn-HARDTTTTTTT!” a man yells.

The man knows Earnhardt can’t see him. He also knows Earnhardt can hear him.

Says Hendrick: “I get six days that Earnhardt fans don’t ask me, ‘When are you going to win again?’ So I’ve got a vacation to Phoenix. I’m excited.”

Earnhardt says when he won Daytona in 2004 he was relieved.

He’d seen his father chase the race, winning seven championships but only one 500, at the age of 47. He talks about Darrell Waltrip, who also won only one, and Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, great drivers who never won.

“Only” is the wrong word. “Only” doesn’t apply to the 500. How many victories are you supposed to have?

Yet one was never sufficient.

“It’s just like color TV, man,” Earnhardt says. “Once you watch color TV for the first time you don’t want to go back to black and white.”

For Earnhardt, it’s as if only Daytona is color.

“This place is just a fairy tale to a guy like me that really loves the sport and enjoys the history, and it all seems like it’s meant to be,” he says.

Earnhardt’s victory also was a fairy tale for his fans and his sport.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119 tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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