Thursday, July 8, 2010

On His Own Terms: Why Racing The 3 Was A Good Idea

Yesterday Katy shared her side of the debate on whether or not racing the #3 was a good idea for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Today Rebecca shares her take on the situation in part 2 of what we are calling the dueling posts. Be sure to let us know what you think of this type of series and what you think of the article in the comments below. We love hearing from you.

I was calmer than I thought I’d be.

I yelled one cheer, but that was as animated as I got Friday as I sat back and watched Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the Nationwide race at Daytona in the No. 3. Wrangler car made famous by his father. This was the most subdued I’d been watching a NASCAR race recently.

Even stranger was that it mirrored the demeanor of the man who hadn't seen the inside of Victory Lane in four years in the series, and just once in Sprint Cup in that stretch of time.

The cameras showed a steady, calm Earnhardt Jr., with just the faintest hint of a smile, as he drove along the front stretch, sharing his victory with the crowd, then made his way to the winner's circle.

Junior later explained, "I didn't have the typical reaction I guess I normally would from a victory. There was so much relief and just pure satisfaction."

And maybe, just maybe, for those few moments, Dale Jr. found something he hadn’t felt in at least a few years' time: peace.

After a tumultuous year and and a half that saw many question his commitment to racing and his ability to be competitive, Earnhardt Jr. showed Friday night - not just to the fans, but perhaps more importantly, to himself - that he still has what it takes to run upfront and bring home the win.

There are two sides to this coin: the retro paint scheme featuring the number of one of the sport's greatest, and the driver who put it in Victory Lane. Junior wanted to honor his father's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame by running the iconic Wrangler design. The victory may have come in a car with a No. 3 on the door, but don't be fooled - it was Junior who worked for every inch he got on the track.

The last season and a half have weighed on Dale Jr. 2009 was his worst season statistically speaking, missing the Chase and finishing a career-low 25th in points. Since moving to the juggernaut Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he’s had just one win, a fuel mileage victory at Michigan. After showing promise at the beginning of 2010 with a second-place finish at Daytona, the 88 team suffered through a string of lackluster performances throughout May.

We’ve seen Junior struggle with the lack of performance. We’ve seen him get frustrated and reach the point of despair, like he did at Charlotte last fall when he said he couldn't bear another season like the one he was having.

There's also the shadow Dale Jr. has had to live under since father's death on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. For some, he will never compare to the man beloved by many as the "Intimidator" with seven Cup championships to his name. But whether you're a fan of his or not, one thing that's certain is Junior has carved out his own identity separate from that of his father. He came into the Cup Series a champion, with two Nationwide titles under his belt. He has 18 Cup wins, including his 2004 Daytona 500 victory. He's a successful team owner, spokesperson and businessman.

Junior will never be his father. And enough time has passed since the Intimidator’s death for fans to see that. The often laid back Junior admittedly has a different driving style than that of the rough-tumbling, push-you-out-of-the-way Earnhardt Sr. Friday's race couldn't have been a better example of that.

When Junior decided to leave DEI, his father’s team, in 2007, he said he would not drive the No. 3 until before he retired. It became clear then that if Junior were to step behind the No. 3 car again, it would be on his own terms. Much has been made of the merchandising that would come out of the deal when it was announced in April, but it’s a paint scheme that Dale Jr. loved of his father’s and wanted to drive someday.

The timing was right for the deal to come together. Not only because of his father's Hall of Fame induction, but because of the intense longing of the man behind the wheel to find his way back to Victory Lane. As the Daytona race loomed, Dale Jr. and the 88 team broke through their struggles and embarked on a drive that resulted in three top-11 finishes prior to the Daytona weekend.

Junior said after the Nationwide race, "Anything less than a win was pointless." Not only did he want to win for his father and the fans, but it was something he needed to do for himself. To do it at the track where Tony Eury Jr. said "they lost everything" cemented it. In doing so, he accomplished something his father never did: putting the Wrangler car in Victory Lane at Daytona, a track that holds so much meaning for their family.

The win came in a No. 3, but the winning driver was Dale Earnhardt Jr. When people talk about the race, they will say, “Do you remember when Dale Earnhardt Jr. won in his father’s Wrangler car?” It’s the two sides of the coin again, the No. 3 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. But on Friday night, Dale Jr. emerged on top - winning his way, on his own terms.

Dale Jr. declared after the race he would never drive the No. 3 again, and that he would never change his mind. After seeing the calm that washed over him when he got that elusive win, I can't think of a better way to put the No. 3 to rest.

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the site or other contributors.


Post a Comment