Big race, bigger name
A Daytona 500 win for Earnhardt would be huge
Posted: Monday February 11, 2008 4:27PM; Updated: Monday February 11, 2008 4:27PM
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The memory is burned into the minds for those who witnessed it while thousands of fans cheered wildly as an Earnhardt drove to victory lane at Daytona International Speedway.
This wasn't Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 win in 1998, when he won the race for the first time in 20 tries. No, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in last Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout, his first win of any kind since Richmond in May 2006.
By winning the shootout between last year's pole winners and the drivers who have previously won this exhibition event, it didn't take Junior long to prove that he had made the right decision to join the powerful Hendrick Motorsports. He also may have established himself as the favorite to win Sunday's Daytona 500.
Earlier in his career, Junior was a master of the moment with the ability to win races at monumental times. He took the Pepsi 400 at Daytona in July 2001, NASCAR's first race at that track since his father was killed in a crash in the final turn of the final lap of that year's Daytona 500. Later that same year, in NASCAR's first race since the terrorist attack on September 11, Earnhardt won at Dover and celebrated the race by driving around the track with an American flag hanging out the window of his Chevrolet. He would continue to win big races, including his first Daytona 500, in 2004.
So as NASCAR prepares for its 50th Daytona 500, it may be another big moment for Earnhardt to deliver, especially with his popular win last Saturday night.
"We have always come up to deliver in unique situations," Earnhardt said. "They weren't high-pressure situations; they were just unique situations in circumstance. I don't know really how those things really happened. At Dover, after 9/11, we just had a good car."
Earnhardt added, "There would be no better way to send ourselves into the  season [than a win here] at Daytona with our new sponsors and new team. Our guys are young, they are green, but they are ready and they are hungry. They are willing to jell and learn and come together as a unit. We have several years to build on this. Coming out of the gate with a win here would be unbelievable for our team."
Even after qualifying a disappointing 15th in Sunday's Daytona 500 Pole Qualifications, Earnhardt enjoyed his return to prominence. Because of the complicated qualifying procedures for the race, only the front row of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson and second-quick driver Michael Waltrip are locked into their spots on the starting grid. The rest of the order will be lined up according to their finish in Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona 150-mile qualifying races.
Earnhardt could score a victory in that race as well as Sunday's 500, and give his fans even more to celebrate.