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CUP: Junior And The 500

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How difficult is winning the Daytona 500?

Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed 20 years. Darrell Waltrip needed 17.

Mark Martin has never won it. Ditto Tony Stewart. Rusty Wallace, about to step into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, was 0-for-forever in the big one. Both Labonte brothers – Terry and Bobby – have won Cup championships but have been shut out in the 500.

David Pearson, a master at big tracks, won it only once – and that came in the amazing 1976 crash finish with Richard Petty.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the race in 2004 to earn a place on the Harley J. Earl trophy along with his late father, figured to score in the 500 eventually. When it happened, he said, he was not prepared for the moment.

So many travel that way, but so few get to the line first.

“I had no idea what winning that race would feel like until I won it,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I didn’t know what to compare that to. When you win that race it is really hard to explain. It’s just really hard to explain. All the things that you want out of life and all the pressures you put on yourself or you feel from other people, all the things you want to accomplish – everybody sort of has this mountain in front of them that they put in front of themselves that they want to climb.

“For a moment or for a day, you are at the top of that mountain. Nothing matters, all your wants and needs, all the problems you have, little petty things that bother you – everything goes away.”

It’s the dream reached, Junior said.

“You just feel like you have realized your full potential,” he said. “Everything is sort of just maxed out for the day, all the things that you wanted to achieve. Obviously, you set a lot of goals for yourself, and that is just one of the goals.

“But, just for a moment, just for that one day, whether it is 30 minutes or an hour after you cross that finish line, you feel like it can’t get any better than this. It is a pretty incredible emotion. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity to experience it. It is such a special moment.

“Every time I see a replay of me and my crew celebrating below the flag stand, it all comes back so clearly. Every time I see that, I just think about how fortunate I feel to have won that race. Some of the greatest drivers come through this sport and don’t win it. It just doesn’t seem right, but only certain ones get that opportunity.”

In less than three weeks, Earnhardt Jr. and 42 other drivers will try again.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.