It was a script only NASCAR could write.
Months of hype went into Friday night’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona. Not just because it was the first race with the new Nationwide CoT, but because it would be the first, and last time that Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed behind the wheel of his late father’s famous #3 car.
The stage was set. Nothing more than a win would satisfy the hungry fans of, not just Junior Nation, but Earnhardt Nation. The son of the now-Hall of Famer would have one chance to renew his father’s legacy. One chance to take the #3 to Victory Lane.
On the third lap, with every fan on camera holding three fingers in the air, the #3 car challenged for the lead. The fans and cars got louder on TV as the microphones were turned up while Earnhardt Jr. fought for the top spot over his former protege’, Brad Keselowski.
He would not lead that lap, and soon the driver everyone was watching fell outside the top 10. But he was only lurking; waiting to pounce on his competition. Like the Intimidator himself.
As the race wore on, Earnhardt Jr. found himself in the top 10, then the top 5. Fourth, third, second. And now, he was on the bumper of his nemesis, Kyle Busch. The man everybody said was most reminiscent of “Big E” was under attack from the younger Earnhardt, and found himself unable to hold “Little E” off.
30 laps remained.
When the caution flag flew for debris, Earnhardt Jr. brought the Wrangler machine to the attention of his crew. He beat everybody off pit road, and led the field back to the green flag.
Earnhardt Jr. led a star-studded line of cars, including his father’s predecessor, Kevin Harvick, who was directly behind him.
The #3 led the parade around for what seemed like an eternity. Certainly, the famous car would cruise to victory once again. Save for a caution with 5 laps remaining.
Little E would lead the field to the green once again with 2 laps to go. As cars behind him jockeyed for position, Earnhardt Jr. held serve. Young drivers Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse would line up behind Earnhardt Jr., but never put up a fight.
The younger Earnhardt very much resembled his father. He imtimidated his competition into not even putting up a fight, settled for nothing less than complete victory, lived up to all the hype, and did it all while driving the #3.
The victory left his crew chief speechless, and left Earnhardt Jr. humbled. It was a race that will be forever remembered as an emotional victory for all of Earnhardt Nation, and for all of NASCAR.
And it was a script that only NASCAR could write.