DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. might as well have worn a scarlet letter on his chest to replace the myriad of sponsors adorning his white driver's suit. It was that kind of weight he carried in the days leading up to Sunday's Daytona 500.
For three of the last four years Earnhardt had failed. Yes, he had come close and finished second on each occasion, but close isn't acceptable when your last name is Earnhardt. Fairly or not, you're held to a different standard; especially so at Daytona, a track forever synonymous with the family name.
It had been 10 years since Earnhardt's only Daytona 500 victory, and those three near-misses in four years bothered him deeply. The losses hardened him, however. His resolve further increased each time he was the runner-up be it to Jamie McMurray (2010), or Matt Kenseth (2012), or Jimmie Johnson (2013).
"You get so caught up in trying to do what you can to make that happen," Earnhardt said. "When you finish second or you fall short, it's really disappointing. You're proud of that effort inside somewhere, but outwardly you're disappointed because winning's all that matters when it comes to Daytona. They won't really remember you for running second a lot."
Earnhardt understood a new approach was needed if he wanted to win again. At the track where his dad held a god-like presence complete with an accompanying black chariot. At the track that claimed his father's life. At the track he personally cherished so much.
He wanted to win. He needed to win at Daytona.
To do so, however, Earnhardt could no longer play it safe. To win at Daytona, he needed to disregard his instincts to be patient and wait until the final moments to strike. The game was now vastly different from the time he dominated restrictor-plate racing in the mid-aughts.
The new strategy called for Earnhardt to assert himself as a challenger earlier than he had previously. Be more aggressive, and control the race late instead of letting others dictate the pace.
And wouldn't you know, Earnhardt did just that Sunday.
Following the six-hour delay for a thunderstorm that swept across the speedway, Earnhardt was forceful. His No. 88 was omnipresent atop the scoring pylon, as no driver led more laps than him. He was the very embodiment of his father behind the wheel; darting between the bottom and top grooves at will, maneuvering his Chevrolet with precision.
Not giving a damn if his ruthlessness and cunning may have offended others.
"There were a couple laps where I had to run Jeff Gordon right on the fence, down the turns, the straightaway, right on his door, to keep him from drafting by me," Earnhardt said. "I hate to do that to my teammate. I hate to do that to anybody. But that's what it took. That's what you had to do."
It wouldn't be Daytona though without the drama. A late caution which set up a restart with two laps to go ensured that. It felt as though events outside Earnhardt's control were conspiring to keep him out of Victory Lane, positioning him for another runner-up finish.
"When you're close enough to the front to win races, there's a lot on the line, it's a big race, and you want to win it so badly, your team wants to win it so badly," Earnhardt said. "You realize at that moment there's countless people watching on television, there's fans countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, your team over on pit wall, your crew chief, your family back home watching.
"There's so many people pulling for you that want to see you win, it's a heavyweight fight."
Then in an instant the drama vanished, replaced by overwhelming jubilation wherever you looked.
First, was the vociferous roar from the grandstand that made the booming thunder from the day's earlier storm seem hushed. Next came the hugs and high-fives exchanged between fans, crewman, and really anyone with a rooting interest in NASCAR's most popular driver.
The euphoria continued to hang in the air even an hour after the checkered flag waved. It was a party no one expected to be invited to one and no one wanted to end. Least of all Earnhardt, who when he walked into the media center let out a resounding "Wooooo" and extended both fists in the air.
"I bet nobody's yelled like that in here in 30 years," Earnhardt said smiling. "People used to yell like that all the time when they won."
This wasn't just the primal scream of a man who had a large weight lifted off his shoulders. It was the exuberant expression of man who had conquered. Of a man who was now a two-time Daytona 500 champion.