Memorable Daytona 500 creates opportunity for Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR

Tom Pennington

The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 he produced the best season of his career, while NASCAR’s popularity soared. Ten years later, Earnhardt and NASCAR are hoping for a repeat.

While the champagne has stopped flowing and the confetti has been swept up, the euphoria of Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500 is still going full swing.

On Monday, Earnhardt appeared on numerous national radio shows and was a guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman." This was followed by Earnhardt guesting on an assortment of ESPN platforms including "Mike and Mike," "First Take" and "SportsCenter." Then on Wednesday came various stops on various Los Angeles media outlets.

"Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014. That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one."-Jeff Gordon on the impact of Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning the Daytona 500

Although every winner of the Daytona 500 goes through the same media junket as Earnhardt, this year has a different feel. The buzz is louder and the excitement more palpable. Both of which have sorely been missing from NASCAR in recent seasons, as television ratings and attendance took a precipitous dip.

That's not to say Earnhardt can solely restore NASCAR to the lofty heights it experienced shortly after the turn of the century when it had a rightful claim as the No. 2 sport in America. But like the NBA when the Celtics and Lakers are elite teams or with baseball when the Yankees and Red Sox annually challenge for a spot in the World Series, NASCAR historically is at its zenith when its most popular drivers excel.

And excelling is something Earnhardt hasn't done enough of in recent years. Although he had five runner-up finishes last year and placed fifth in points, he again went winless for the fifth time in seven seasons. Earnhardt's struggles to find Victory Lane are further highlighted when you consider from 2008 -- the year he first joined Hendrick Motorsports -- to the end of 2013, he amassed just two wins in 216 starts.

"It's not a weight when you're able to deliver; it's a weight when you're not able to deliver," Earnhardt said. "When people say you're the face of the sport, you're running fifth or 10th every week, it's very challenging because you want to deliver and you're not delivering."

If Earnhardt's Daytona 500 triumph is going to have long-term implications on television ratings and attendance, then Sunday cannot be just a blip, but rather the start of something more pronounced. What needs to happen is what occurred the last time NASCAR's most popular driver won its marquee event. In that year, 2004, Earnhardt won six races and was in title contention until the end of the season -- neither of which has happened since.

Normally laid back and not one to make declarative statements, Earnhardt seems energized by the recent events.

"At the end of last year, we felt like we were right on the cusp of winning races," Earnhardt said. "We're turning the corner right at the right time. I got one last year with (Letarte) and we're going to make it something special."

When it was announced crew chief Steve Letarte would take a job as an analyst for NBC Sports at the end of the 2014 season, Earnhardt was obstinate that his No. 88 would continue to be a force despite Letarte's lame-duck status. Although there were reasons to be doubtful, within one race Earnhardt proved correct.

Quite frequently in the Daytona aftermath, Earnhardt has uttered the phrase "our time," fully recognizing that if he is to win a championship, 2014 might be the best chance to do so. With Letarte leaving at the end of the year, and driving for the best organization in the garage, the pieces are in place for Earnhardt to finally win that elusive first Sprint Cup championship.

"Our confidence couldn't be higher," Earnhardt said. "Confidence is a great thing. It's half of the battle, you know, being confident in what you're doing."

One race doesn't make a season, but in the case of Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500, that might be the exception.

"Dale Jr. just won the Daytona 500 to kick off 2014. That is a sign that the NASCAR season is going to be a good one," said teammate Jeff Gordon.

After an offseason filled with dramatic change and the focus more on what's going on off the track rather than on it, for NASCAR's sake, it better hope Gordon proves to be prophetic.

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