Dale Jr.'s Daytona 500 Win Seen As Big Boost For NASCAR As '14 Season Begins
After a record-setting rain delay yesterday of around 6 hours and 22 minutes had turned Daytona Int'l Speedway into the "world's most expansive parking lot," Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 for the first time in a decade, and NASCAR's "favorite son once again had his moment in the sun," according to Cary Estes of SI.com. This was "probably the most popular victory in NASCAR since Earnhardt's father won his first and only Daytona 500" in '98. Earnhardt "winless ways had not decreased his popularity" after winning just two Sprint Cup races since the beginning of '07, but it "did seem like Earnhardt's slump was taking the sport down with him." Fans have been "steadily abandoning NASCAR since it hit a popularity peak" around '05, and what the sport "desperately needed was to see Earnhardt win in a big way on a grand stage." Runner-up Denny Hamlin said, "It's big for a lot of reasons. It's obviously very significant anytime (an) Earnhardt wins at Daytona." Team owner Rick Hendrick said, "It's good for NASCAR. It's good for all of us." Estes notes other tracks on NASCAR's circuit already are "seeking to benefit from Earnhardt's victory." Talladega Superspeedway moments after last night's race was over sent out an e-mail "promoting its race in May that stated, 'Congratulations Dale Jr.!! Cheer Dale Jr. to the checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway! Two Tickets For $88'" (SI.com, 2/24). In Jacksonville, Don Coble writes fans who "sat through the longest single-day rain delay in NASCAR history were rewarded in a dramatic finish that saw Earnhardt keep his No. 88 Chevrolet ahead of several multi-car crashes in the final 100 laps" (FLORIDA TIMES-UNION, 2/24).
SETTING THE PACE: In Charlotte, Tom Sorensen writes NASCAR "could not have had a better start" to the '14 season. With "late pushes" from teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt "clung to the front and won the thrilling, thrilling, and bizarre, bizarre, race." Sorensen: "The almost-24 Hours at Daytona ended with by far the sport’s most popular driver winning what it is by far the sport’s biggest race" (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 2/24). In K.C., Randy Covitz writes Earnhardt "couldn’t have picked a more appropriate time to win his second Daytona 500." The win "virtually guarantees Earnhardt, NASCAR’s most popular driver for the last 11 years, a spot in the expanded 16-driver field in the revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs at the end of the season." Earnhardt asked, "Am I in the Chase? We don’t have to worry about that now?” (K.C. STAR, 2/24). Earnhardt said, "If everyone is telling the truth, then I don’t got to worry (about making the Chase). But we’re going for the jugular this year" (BOSTON GLOBE, 2/24).
CHANGING THINGS UP: USA TODAY's Jeff Gluck writes NASCAR's changes to the Chase format in some ways "are gimmicks." But sports are "supposed to be entertainment, so what's wrong with trying to make the competition more entertaining?" A one-race championship format "might be the most extreme yet -- although whether fans love it or hate it, they'll probably make sure to watch" (USA TODAY, 2/24).