When the No. 3 Richard Childress Chevrolet led the field to the green flag Sunday afternoon at the Daytona 500, you could not help but feel a greater presence cross the start-finish line with the 43-car field. 13 years from the fateful day that the historic track took a legend from the sport of NASCAR, the symbolic number graced the eyes of millions watching around the world. However, when the rumbling pack of stock cars roared to the green flag, Dale Earnhardt did not ride alongside the number he made famous or its new driver, instead he followed his son.
Things might not have played out as Earnhardt intended them to. Had he not lost his life in that cockpit in 2001, Dale Earnhardt Inc. might still exist, he might be the owner of a four-car powerhouse organization and his son may have never traded in his Budweiser No. 8 car for the enemy. But all of that is a thing of the past and it cannot be changed. DEI is virtually non-existent and Dale Earnhardt Jr. now drives alongside Jimmy Johnson and Jeff Gordon at Hendricks Motor Sports. If Senior were still here today, maybe Junior wouldn’t have switched teams and maybe he would have a Sprint Cup Championship by now. That is where Sunday’s race comes in.
The 88 and Jr. were the most dominant they have been in years, the way he navigated the National Guard Chevy at the front of the pack, controlling both the high and low lines at the same time. How he would just drive the car away from the field during restarts. It had been forever since NASCAR nation saw its most famous driver own all other 42 cars. Then there was the telling sign, a sign sent from above that maybe this race would be different, that maybe this season contained hope for Earnhardt and his crew.
Under caution, preparing for the final restart of the race, Jr. drove over and picked up a large piece of tape from one of the many damaged cars. The black piece of tape attached itself to the front of the 88, covering park of the narrow grill opening. In any over circumstance, this would cause immediate worries for driver and crew. The piece of debris could cause the car to overheat under green flag conditions, leading to possible engine damage, but with two laps to go, it was a sign from above.
Instead of causing potential race ending damage, the piece of tape added extra down-force to the car, giving Jr. a slight advantage over the competition. The odds of something like this happening only point to a sign from above, a sign that his father was there all along. For NASCAR, the win was a huge victory for their attempted resurgence, but for Earnhardt Jr., the win acted as hope, hope that the 2014 season would be different.
If the Daytona 500 was an indication of how this year will play out for Jr., then the future is bright, especially considering the bombshell crew chief Steve Letard dropped before the season started. He announced that this would be his last year as Jr.’s crew chief, giving up the pit-box for the broadcast booth. For many teams, that announcement would cripple a team, but after a strong finish to the 2013 year, both Letard and Earnhardt won’t let it ruin their focus of winning a championship.
Right now, it looks like this duo is off to fulfill their goals and isn’t it fitting that Earnhardt Jr. would see success amidst the return of his father’s famous number? Mark my words, this is Earnhardt Jr.’s year and it looks like his father’s spirit will occupy the passenger seat of that 88 Chevy.
Shane Phillips is a NASCAR Writer for RantSports.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneRantSports, “Like” him on Facebook or add him to your network on Google. You can also email Shane at ShaneRantNBA@gmail.com.