DAYTONA — Jeff Gordon, himself a three time winner of the Daytona 500, said it best when Dale Earnhardt Jr, beat him and 42 other NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers to the finish line at Daytona International Speedway late into the night on Sunday: “All is right with the world, Dale Jr. has won the Daytona 500.”
It was a sentiment shared by more than 150,000 fans who had braved the threat of a tornado and a six and a half hour rain delay as well as millions more of the so called Junior Nation who watched it at home.
This was no fluke win, nor was it any stage managed win, although there will be plenty of conspiracy theorists coming out of their mother’s basements this week claiming exactly that.
Earnhardt’s No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet had been the dominant race car all day and all night at the 2.5 mile banked oval.
This after all is the same Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the same team that has finished second at Daytona in 2012 and again last season.
So he knows how to get around a superspeedway.
It was the reaction of his competitors, however, that tells the real story of just how well liked and respected Earnhardt is in NASCAR.
It started with Gordon, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, but it was almost universal.
Denny Hamlin, who had won every race he was in the week leading up to Sunday’s Daytona 500 and was crushed he couldn’t complete the trifecta to bring Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota their first Great America Race win, said he was torn between two emotions as he saw his friend take the checkered flag in front of his No. 11 Camry.
“I was both pissed off at finishing second and happy for Dale,” he said.
Hamlin did acknowledge, though, that Earnhardt’s win was well deserved.
“Dale just played it perfectly once he got out front on that last fuel run — everyone else is just side by side,” he said.
Six time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who finished fifth in the No. 48 Hendrick Chevrolet, heaped praise on his teammate, even though the two battled through the final laps before the green white checkered finish.
“I want to talk about my teammate and the awesome job he did,” Johnson said. “He has been knocking on the door here at the 500 for a lot of years and got it done tonight.”
Brad Keselowski, the third place finisher in the No. 2 Penske Ford, said he thought he had the best chance of his career to win at Daytona, but came up agonizingly short.
Still he was smiling at the end for his longtime pal.
“We didn’t get the win, which is most disappointing as a driver with a car like that which you don’t get all the time, at least most of us don’t,” Keselowski said. “I had the opportunity tonight and came up a little short on that last restart. I am really proud of the effort and happy for my friend.”
Keselowski’s comments and those of others afterwards reflect the genuine feelings in the NASCAR garage for Earnhardt.
It is not something done for the television cameras, it is real.
“I am happy for him and happy for all those guys,” Keselowski said. “There are a lot of great people over there on that team.
“Dale obviously gave me my big opportunity and is probably my best friend in the garage outside of my teammate Joey Logano.
“There is a lot of cross-pollination there. It is good for them. I am happy for him.”
And Keselowski, being Keselowski, couldn’t let Earnhardt’s victory go into the history book without taking a well deserved shot at those who woke up Monday morning believing NASCAR had somehow engineered the whole thing.
“I think the great thing about Dale winning today is that I followed him and passed him and did all those other things and I think it was something where this particular race there is no drama or feeling that anyone can legitimately say there was some voodoo magic reason why he won,” he said. “He earned this in every sense of the form. I think to me, that probably stands out the most.”
It probably won’t matter to the cave dwellers, but sometimes nice guys do finish first and on Sunday night in Daytona was one of those times.
Who won what at Daytona 500
1: Dale Earnhardt. Jr. 1 $1,506,363
2: Denny Hamlin $1,148,451
3: Brad Keselowski $847,721
4: Jeff Gordon $731,399
5: Jimmie Johnson $589,399
6: Matt Kenseth $518,362
7: Ricky Stenhouse. Jr. $434,588
8: Greg Biffle $413,838
9: Austin Dillon $424,674
10: Casey Mears $377,221
11: Joey Logano $376,354
12: Landon Cassill $306,850
13: Kevin Harvick $368,196
14: Jamie McMurray $361,777
15; Bobby Labonte $325,213
16; Reed Sorenson $342,446
17: Carl Edwards $340,638
18: Marcos Ambrose $363,458
19; Kyle Busch $373,504
20: Terry Labonte $339,996