DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. could be forgiven for despising the place. But he also has reason to worship it. And the childhood memories are something he clearly cherishes.
Such is the complicated relationship the 42-year-old must have with Daytona International Speedway on the eve of potentially his last race at the hulking track where his father died and his legend was born.
But if emotions were gurgling within, Earnhardt has suppressed them well so far.
Track president Chip Wile on Friday presented the 10-time Daytona-winner — Cup and Xfinity Series combined — with a portrait rekindling memories of three of his greatest moments here, among them an image of the car he drove to victory in the 2001 summer race, just five months after Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. claimed his first of two Daytona 500 victories in 2004, sending his crew chief and uncle, Tony Eury, into a fit of joyous bawling. His second came in 2014, ending a 55-race winless streak and re-firing what has become the final phase of his 19-year career at NASCAR’s highest level.
And for a driver who as a kid saw Daytona as a summer jaunt to the beach with friends and family, there are memories beyond the high banks.
“There was a scoring stand down in Turn 1 that is where all the wives and children went for the race,” he recalled. “So, you would go down there into that stand to watch the race and there would be everybody’s kids. We would all be playing around and goofing off. That was pretty fun.
“Back in those days drivers, crews and everybody stayed in hotels on the beach. So we were in the pool all week. I remember falling off a high-dive one time and (thinking) I killed myself. ... You’d have drivers in the pool after practice. That was cool for those guys to be able to do that.”
But Earnhardt spoke of the 2.5-mile restrictor-plate track in clinical terms on Friday, referring to its ability to launch careers, its importance to the industry and the quality of the recent Daytona Rising remodel.
A few hours later he won the pole, just his second at the track. Teammate Chase Elliott said Earnhardt has made it “very apparent” in debriefs this weekend that he is determined to begin the race with the most optimal No. 88 Chevrolet possible.
Perhaps the nostalgic urgency of the race has been tempered because last week Earnhardt suggested he would consider racing in the Daytona 500 again, a prospect four-time series champion and former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon rebuffed upon his retirement after the 2015 season.
In addition, he has “two-to-six” Xfinity Series race commitments for the foreseeable future with JR Motorsports. He also dabbled with the prospect of asking team owner Rick Hendrick to field a car for him in the preseason Clash at Daytona for pole-winners.
Though Earnhardt said he has experienced few emotional moments since announcing his pending retirement a season after missing half of the 36-race schedule because of a recurrence of concussions, there have been notable exceptions. One came on Thursday night as he watched a replay of his 2004 victory.
“I got emotional last night watching that race on NBC. But I do every time I watch it,” he said. “I think about the Eurys and my Uncle Danny. I watched that celebration in the infield, and I know I looked like I was letting it sink in, but you can’t go back and do that over again. But, there were a lot of people there and (it) brought up a lot of memories. That was a great team.
“So, when I see those kinds of highlights or something like that, it kind of brings some emotion around. Being at the track or getting in the car or hearing the national anthem or coming to Daytona for this last race, nothing really has bothered me too much.”
Brant James, USA Today