It was both the beginning and the end of an era at Daytona on Friday night – as the new generation of Nationwide series cars made their debut, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would give the #3 one final race victory.
After striking a deal with Wrangler to race the #3 Chevrolet, Earnhardt revealed before the race it would likely be the last time he would ever race with the number made famous by his father years ago.
“I just want to go to the racetrack and run it once before I retire, and this will probably be it,” he said. “After this, I’ll probably never drive a car with a 3 on it again. I can pretty much say I’m 99 percent sure that will never happen again.”
Junior has always had something of a unique relationship with Daytona – he can produce mega drives from nowhere, as if that fateful day back in 2001 gives him the extra psychological ‘push’ to just try a bit harder. The best example of this was back in 2001, the second round of the season at Daytona – for the last 10 laps it looked more like his father was at the wheel, he was driving that on the edge.
Kyle Busch dominated the early running of the race, but on lap 70, Earnhardt emerged out front for the first time – just in time for a debris caution where everyone pitted for fresh rubber and the #3 retained the lead coming off pit road.
Lap 96 saw another caution – and the field splitting in two on different strategies. While Earnhardt stayed out to keep track position, Sprint Cup regulars Busch, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman came in for a new set of tyres, hoping the fresher rubber would give an advantage near the end of the race.
It didn’t work out however – despite a late green-white-checker finish Earnhardt hung on to victory, while Edwards could only manage 11th – losing further ground to championship leader Brad Keselowski, who came 4th, just ahead of Kevin Harvick.
“I was so worried that I wasn’t going to win, ’cause nothing but a win would get it-for everybody,” said an emotionall Earnhardt. “I worked hard to try to win, not only for daddy – I’m proud of him going to the Hall of Fame, and he would be proud of this, I’m sure – but just all these fans. I hope they enjoyed this. This is it – no more ‘3’ for me. That’s it.”
He was of course racing for Richard Childress Racing this weekend – his father’s team for almost his entire career – and had some words of encouragement for Junior in Victory Lane.
“He just said that daddy would have been happy, real happy. And who would know better than him?”
|1.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||Chevrolet||102|
|3.||Ricky. Stenhouse Jr.||Ford||102|