Earnhardt Jr.’s Daytona 500 win began at MB Speedway

earnhardt-mbsWhen the rain finally relented and the green flag finally waved, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went on to win NASCAR’s biggest event the same way he learned to race – under the lights.

It has been exactly 20 years since the former Saturday night regular at Myrtle Beach Speedway (1994-96) spent three seasons swapping paint with the local boys at MBS, and that fearless style paid off handsomely under the much brighter lights of Daytona International Speedway on Sunday night.

In a race that started in broad daylight and ended 42 minutes before midnight, and with a swatch of tape covering part of his grille, Earnhardt Jr. won the 56th running of the Daytona 500 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Earnhardt was a car-length ahead of Denny Hamlin when NASCAR threw the seventh caution of the race a split second before Earnhardt crossed the finish line to win the Great American Race for the second time in his career.

Under NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format, Earnhardt’s 20th career Sprint Cup Series victory almost assuredly locks him into the 10-race postseason playoff, set to start at Chicagoland Speedway in September.

In Victory Lane, Earnhardt didn’t even try to contain his elation. After all, he had just broken a 55-race winless streak. After finishing second in three last four Daytona 500s, he had just won the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener in his last year with crew chief Steve Letarte, who is headed for the TV booth in 2015.

“Man, winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in the sport, aside from obviously accepting the trophy for the championship,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again, and it feels just as good, if not better than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years and wondering why and what we needed to do.”

Maybe it was just a matter of flipping the light switch, because the bulb finally went off over Earnhardt’s head after three rough-and-tumble seasons under the lights of MBS. His famous father and late namesake sent his son to the half-mile asphalt oval because he knew it was the best place to get the experience he needed to move up the NASCAR ranks.

Earnhardt Jr.’s education didn’t come easily, more like the school of hard knocks. He was routinely wrecked by older and perhaps jealous drivers who would rather put him in the wall than watch him win a race. It wasn’t until his third and final season at MBS that he finally won a race, two to be exact, and he made his NASCAR Busch (now Nationwide) Series debut at the local track later that season. He won the Busch Series championship two seasons later and was well on his way to stardom at NASCAR’s highest level.

Courtesy of MB Speedway

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