Being a southern boy at heart, NASCAR had a humongous place within my childhood. I was born and raised about an hour southwest of Talladega, when races came to town, they were like holidays. I got out of school to go to qualifying rounds, we skipped church to go watch the boys down at Dega. It was nothing but raunchy, no-frills fun.
My family was an Earnhardt family since the day I was born. My dad was a staunch Dale enthusiast, and while my mom preferred Dale Jarrett, she knew why The Intimidator was so special. Me being the son, I sort of connected more with Earnhardt Jr, being that red was my favorite color at the time, so that bright red #8 really attracted me to it. I even had a team jacket around that time, one I got nearly suspended from elementary school for wearing because it said, “Bud,” on it.
Because of that long-grained love for the Es, only two major NASCAR events remain in my memory.
The first was, of course, Dale Earnhardt Sr’s death at the 2001 Daytona 500. My whole neighborhood was dead silent, what was once rowdy redneck cheers suddenly became so quiet it was almost deafening. Even those who didn’t root for Earnhardt felt the weight of his death and what it meant for NASCAR. It was almost like everyone knew that from this moment on, things were never going to be the same.
By god, it was true.
Some of that romanticized thrill that came with NASCAR at the time, the idolized drivers that could “take a licking and keep on kicking” was brought down a ton of notches. My mom once told me that Dale was not handsome to look at, but he became the sexiest man alive once he was behind that wheel. After he was gone, it was like the changing of the guards. There were no more guns in the valley.
And yet, people never stopped cheering on when the races continued. People never stopped rooting for their favorite drivers. If you loved Earnhardt Sr, you just moved on to Jr, and you kept that tradition going. It’s what Dale would have wanted anyway. Which brings me to my second major NASCAR memory, and the title of this post: The 2001 Pepsi 400.
On July 7, 2001, NASCAR returned to Daytona for the first time after Earnhardt’s death. The track had a permanent bad omen overhead, and people constantly brought up that name in passing conversation. All eyes were of course, trained on Earnhardt Jr, and so many people poised him to win the race. Perhaps everyone felt like it was his solemn duty to do so? Either way, he was definitely the favorite.
And so the race began. Everything started normal. Junior found his way to the front and led 22 laps. The big one hit with 18 to go, and Junior surrendered his lead, struggling to gain back the speed after the green flag flew again. After another caution with only 7 laps to go, Junior was down in sixth, and many people wondered if he’d be able to make up those spaces in enough succession. As Benny Parsons said, “We’ve seen cars able to pass Junior tonight, but we don’t know if he’s able to pass them back.”
The green flew, and it was like magic somehow swept onto the pavement.
With 5 cars in front of him and less than ten laps to go, Junior stuck it out and fought to find himself back in first after a couple of laps. Drivers like Tony Stewart and Bobby Labonte fought to take it away, but he just kept leading...and leading...and leading, almost as if some invisible force kept pushing him and keeping him in front of the pack. Do you believe in ghosts? Cause some NASCAR fans sure did on that day.
The race became even more of a done deal when Junior’s teammate Michael Waltrip ended up in 2nd place, behind Junior, seemingly blocking everyone else from daring to try and make a chance at the gold. At this point, everyone knew Junior was taking the checkered flag, the question was more or less what the standings would be behind him.
People to this day question the legitimacy of Junior’s win in the Pepsi 400. Other drivers such as Johnny Benson and Jimmy Spencer claimed Junior’s win was “way too easy” and that Michael Waltrip’s actions were a showcase of some sort of fixing. I disagree to an extent. I believe that most racers on that tarmac to a certain extent wanted Junior in victory lane and all had their own hand in getting him there, whether purposefully or not. Besides, who didn’t want to see him there after such a tragic loss at the beginning of the year.
Sometimes I feel like NASCAR is given the cold shoulder on Oppo and other places on the internet, and frankly, there’s a good reason that it is. But I often reminisce on the days when NASCAR was something you could be proud of. The 2001 Pepsi 400 wasn’t the last of the great NASCAR races, but it’s one of the more fond ones, and one of the most amazing victories ever seen at Daytona.
Raise Hell, Praise Dale.