The Daytona 500 is a spectacle like none other in the racing world. With turns too steep to walk up and a crowd of a hundred thousand-plus donning legends on its shirts and hats, the February event ranks near the top of all championships in sports entertainment.
But the events that played out on Sunday may never be done again. With gentlemen and gentlewoman starting their engines just after noon on Sunday, the race quickly came to a halt — a 6-hour, 22-minute halt. With rain pouring down and showing no signs of letting up, drivers and fans took shelter until day turned to night.
But thanks to the hard work of devoted NASCAR personnel, the race went on without a hitch.
After the extremely uncharacteristic wait, the 40-plus racers finally hit the 2.5-mile raceway once again, now under the lights at Daytona.
With a long night ahead, the front of the pack had a very familiar name attached — Earnhardt. Dale Junior’s No. 88 National Guard car was leading the field in the sports opening race of the year.
With teammate and stellar driver Jimmy Johnson blocking in the two hole, it was like Junior’s dad was back from the grave blocking foes from the finish line once again.
It was a clean race until lap 146 when 13 drivers hit the showers early due to a massive pileup. Fourteen laps later eight more found their way to the garage. Finally, after going under another caution with six laps to go, Earnhardt took the checkered flag to victory and was once again Daytona royalty after a 10-year drought.
Not to mention snapping a nearly two-year winless streak overall.
While the win would have still been exciting and emotional for any other racer in the field, for Dale Jr. it was extra special.
Thirteen years after his father died on the final lap of the very track blocking for teammate Michael Waltrip, Junior was back in victory lane.
Full of tears and joy and all but speechless, the worn out Dale Jr. took his victory lap with the net down and the flag flying from the driver’s side window as he paid tribute to his father and the fans.
Junior had finished second in three of the last four 500s.
But Sunday’s race wasn’t just another Daytona 500. It was the first with the No. 3 car burning rubber and Dale Sr. not behind the wheel.
No, it wasn’t the famous black with white lettering outlined in red that everyone remembers smashing the wall in turn four, but it was the same No. 3 shining bright around the track.
Car owner Richard Childress’ grandson, Austin Dillon, paced the 3 around Daytona. Childress was the owner when Dale Sr. was racing.
With Dale Jr. back at the top of the NASCAR world, racing fans everywhere rejoiced for the sport favorite. Non-NASCAR fans came out of the woodwork to wish him well. Social media was full of status updates and Tweets on the race.
The three-hour-turned-all-day event had taken over the internet and the world.
Though it was for just a few hours, the likes of anything quite like that ever happening again are slim to none.
Dale Jr. was finally champion once again. The heartache was over just that fast. Everything went perfect. Every pit stop. Every caution. EVERYTHING.
The race was just how nobody anticipated. Earnhardt winning?