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Earnhardt as happy for fans as himself

  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/24/00/58/vuR24.Em.138.jpeg|173
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.(88) celebrates his victory in the Daytona 500 by passing by the fans with the checkered flag at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, February 23, 2014.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/24/00/57/1bQTVX.Em.138.jpeg|242
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    (L-R) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.(88) and teammate Jeff Gordon (24) embrace following Earnhardt Jr.'s winning the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, February 23, 2014.
  • http://media.charlotteobserver.com/smedia/2014/02/24/00/57/2KKPV.Em.138.jpeg|238
    Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
    NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his team celebrate their victory in the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, February 23, 2014.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. In the minutes after Dale Earnhardt Jr. clinched his second career victory in the Daytona 500, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, certainly recognized its significance.

“The world is right, right now,” he said.

Yes, at least until the next race on Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway.

A season of great change in NASCAR got a jolt late Sunday night from its past to charge into the 2014 season.

The son of the late seven-time Cup series champion had established himself more than a decade ago as a master of NASCAR’s biggest superspeedways, much like his father before him.

Yet he hadn’t won a retrictor-plate race since 2004, even though he had finished second in the 500 in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

NASCAR and Earnhardt got what it wanted – another win for the sport’s most popular driver on the track where he has shined brightest.

“It’s such a great feeling. You want to do it again. I’m grateful to have won it twice now. I was grateful to have won it once,” an obviously emotional Earnhardt said early Monday morning after the race.

“In about six months, I’ll be as urgent to try to do it a third time as I was after the first.”

Earnhardt’s second victory in the Great American Race was special for several reasons.

With two wins in the 500, Earnhardt accomplished something his famous father did not. He joins Bill Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Michael Waltrip and Sterling Marlin as a two-winner of the event.

Perhaps most importantly to Earnhardt, the victory helped repay the allegiance of his myriad of fans, who have voted him the sport’s most popular driver for 11 consecutive seasons.

“This brings me a lot of joy. I look forward to going and doing all the media all week long and representing the sport,” Earnhardt said.

“I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did.”

Even though Earnhardt led 18 of 200 laps in the rain-delayed race, his victory wasn’t ensured until a multi-car wreck erupted behind him on the last lap and NASCAR was forced to throw the caution flag.

The caution froze the field with Earnhardt in the lead, clinching his victory, which – thanks to a new championship format announced last month – virtually ensures Earnhardt a spot in this season’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

Denny Hamlin, who won the Sprint Unlimited and one of the 150-mile qualifying races during Speedweeks, finished second. Brad Keselowski was third, Gordon fourth and Johnson fifth.

Gordon’s push of Earnhardt on a restart with two laps remaining helped keep the 20-time series winner out front.

“Jeff pushing us on the last restart was key to us winning the race, a key moment for us to pull away, not get stuck side-by-side with the outside lane,” Earnhardt said. “We timed that perfectly. He did a great job.”

The race was also special moment for Earnhardt and his crew chief, Steve Letarte, who is leaving at the end of the season to take a TV analyst job with NBC.

For all practical purposes, Sunday’s 500 was Letarte’s last as a crew chief.

“Winning reminds you how great this sport is, why we all did it, why we’re all here. It’s really as simple as that. It seems odd, but that’s really what it comes down to,” Letarte said.

“We don’t play in stick and ball sports. A .500 year doesn’t exist with a race team. You go and you compete against 42 other people. Every Sunday you line up. 

“Nobody cares what you did last week.”

Everybody, that is, except Junior Nation.

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter
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