Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t come to Daytona International Speedway to finish second.
Not driving and blue-and-yellow Chevrolet bearing the No. 3 and sponsorship from Wrangler. Not with his millions of fans expecting him to deliver. No way. On this hot July night, at the most famous track in NASCAR, with his Daddy’s number and colors on the side, Earnhardt was going to victory lane, period.
And that’s exactly what happened at the Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona International Speedway: Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the No. 3 to win at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, just as his late father had so very often.
“I was so worried that I wasn't going to win, 'cause nothing but a win would get it — for everybody,” Earnhardt said. “If we didn't win, what a waste of time.”
Earnhardt needn’t have worried.
He arrived at Daytona to drive the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet in a one-off arrangement among car owner Richard Childress, Teresa Earnhardt, JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, which supplied the engine for the No. 3 car.
Justin Allgaier pushed Earnhardt into the lead on Lap 70, and from there on NASCAR’s most popular driver held on, surviving a green-white-checkered finish to win his 23rd career NNS race and the first since Aug. 19, 2006, at Michigan International Speedway. For Earnhardt, a two-time NNS series champion, it was his first victory in any of NASCAR's top three series since June 15, 2008, when he had captured the LifeLock 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan.
In the maiden race with NASCAR’s new-generation NNS car, which was raced four times in 2010 and will run the full schedule in 2011 and beyond, Earnhardt took the Daytona checkered flag ahead of Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick.
It was arguably the most popular victory at the the famous track since the 1998 Daytona 500.
“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,” Earnhardt sad. “I hope they enjoyed this. This is it — no more ‘3’ for me. That's it.”
All told, it was quite a night.
“It's emotional,” said Earnhardt, who had his cousin Tony Eury Jr. serve as his crew chief for the group. “I'm proud of myself. I'm proud to have done what I did with this group.”
Childress, who won six Sprint Cup championships as Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s car owner, told Earnhardt Jr. his father would have been proud.
“He just said that Daddy would have been happy, real happy,” Earnhardt said. “And who would know better than him?”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.