It’s race day… and the official start of the NASCAR Cup Series season.
As we gear up for the Daytona 500, we’ve been looking back at some of the most memorable moments in the history of the Great American Race.
There was the “Dale and Dale Show” from 1993, and Dale Earnhardt’s incredible win in 1998 after 19 years of heartbreak. Then we looked at Earnhardt’s gritty performance in the 1997 Daytona 500 after flipping his car and then getting out of the ambulance to get back in his car and finish the race.
Then there were a couple of head-scratching moments, like Sterling Marlin getting out of his car on the backstretch under a red flag to fix his damaged fender in 2002, and Juan Pablo Montoya taking out a jet dryer and turning the track into a fiery inferno in 2012.
And finally, today we’re going to be looking back at one of the most popular wins in Daytona 500 history, back on February 15, 2004.
It was six years to the day that Dale Earnhardt had won his first, and ultimately his only, Daytona 500. And it was only the third Daytona 500 since Earnhardt was tragically killed in a crash on the last lap of the race in 2001.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came into the 2004 race as the fan favorite to pull of his first Daytona 500 win, especially with the strength his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team always showed at superspeedway races.
And he was fast from the time his #8 Budweiser Chevy rolled off the hauler.
Earnhardt Jr. finished in 2nd place in the Bud Shootout exhibition race, and then won the first of the two Gatorade Twin 125 duel races to earn himself the third starting spot in the race. But when polesitter Greg Biffle had to make an engine change before the race, that sent Biffle to the back of the field and put Junior in the pole position for the start of the 500.
The energy was high on race day, with President George W. Bush on hand to deliver the command to start the engines (and a national anthem performance from a 21-year old LeAnn Rimes).
And once the green flag dropped, Junior was never far from the front of the field.
He led the first 29 laps before being passed by Kevin Harvick – the driver who had taken over his dad’s ride after his untimely death. After a caution and a round of pit stops, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson would battle for the lead before Earnhardt Jr. ultimately raced his way back up front and into the top spot.
From there, Stewart and Junior battled for most of the race for the top spot, as the final 120 laps of the race ran under the green flag without a caution.
The final lead change of the race came on lap 181 when Earnhardt Jr. overtook Stewart and led the final 19 laps of the race to bring home his first Daytona 500 win in front of a roaring crowd that was on their feet cheering the fan favorite to victory.
And in Victory Lane, Junior admitted that he had a little help to pull off the win:
“I’ve seen it been lost so many times by dad over and over, and I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel. I’m glad I ain’t gotta worry about it no more. Man, this is awesome…
He was over in the passenger side riding with me. I’m sure he was having a blast.”
Earnhardt Jr. would go on to add another Daytona 500 win to his resume 10 years later when he took the checkered flag in 2014.
But you’ve gotta think nothing will ever top that first victory in the sport’s biggest race – especially when it comes six years to the day after his dad also became a Daytona 500 winner.