Although many NASCAR drivers strive for it, only a small percentage will ever achieve the bragging rights of winning of the Daytona 500. To win "The Great American Race" at Daytona International Speedway, the driver needs proven skill behind the wheel and an experienced racing team and crew chief in the pits. Pulling off a win here puts the victor in a recognizable category of talented racers, ranging from Richard Petty and Michael Waltrip to Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
15-time Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in a special category of NASCAR drivers, having seen Victory Lane at the "The Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing" more than once. Junior's wins in 2004 and 2014 showcased the North Carolina native's driving skill, and was also a tribute to his iconic father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who won himself in 1998 and tragically died after a final lap incident at the 2001 Daytona 500.
Junior's 2004 Daytona 500 Win
Dale Jr. had a great start to the 2004 season. He almost swept Speedweeks, winning the Gatorade Duel NASCAR race and just barely missing victory at the Budweiser Shootout — now called the Busch Clash and the first race of the NASCAR Cup Series — where he came in second to Dale Jarrett.
Ahead of his first Daytona 500 victory, Dale Jr. had a great qualifying time, which put him in a starting position of third place. Even though he was in a good spot, moving his way up into first position certainly didn't come easy. He had to compete directly against all-star race car driver and runner-up Tony Stewart, who had led 98 laps out of the race.
With only 20 laps left in the event, Junior made his move to the inside and finally passed Stewart — his future teammate at Hendrick Motorsports — and Dale impressively maintained the pole position until his No. 8 Chevrolet crossed the finish line. This chalked up yet another memorable victory for his team, Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
Dale Jr. Saw Victory Lane Again in 2014
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s second Daytona 500 win came in the No. 88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports, helmed by team owner and good friend Rick Hendrick.
For the Sprint Cup Series race, the JR Motorsports co-owner started out in ninth. During the first quarter of the race, he mainly stayed in the middle of the pack and didn't appear to be pushing extremely hard. Only 45 minutes into the race, the red flags came out for a rain delay, which lasted over six hours. When it came time for the restart, Junior appeared to be a whole different animal.
He led a total of 54 laps during the race, with the final 18 being the most crucial. Not only did he maintain the lead, but he defended against Denny Hamlin and Brad Keselowski by breaking the draft in both the high and low lanes.
A last-lap crash between Kevin Harvick and Jamie McMurray brought out the caution, and officially allowed Dale to cross the finish line in first place just before midnight.
It was this kind of racing that makes you really understand why Dale Jr. is a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. One thing is for sure: Dale Sr. would be extremely proud of his son's mark on NASCAR history.
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This post was originally published on June 10, 2021.
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