DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. made peace with Daytona International Speedway long ago.
Seventeen years after his dad’s death, Earnhardt had only positive vibes Sunday at the famed racetrack where his father died. Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
“When he passed away here, I had two choices: I could hate this place for it or it could become even more special to me and I could become even more connected to it because of that circumstance,” Earnhardt said Sunday. “I chose to embrace the track more. I knew how special this place was to my dad, so it’s more meaningful to me personally maybe than to a lot of the other competitors as the cornerstone of our series and birthplace of speed and all the things, you know, ‘The Great American Race.’
“I made peace a long time ago with what happened and decided to remember this as the place where he lost his life. That’s, to me, a positive, not a negative. I didn’t want to feel any negative feelings when I came here because I love Daytona, love this track and I love the history. I want to be rooted in this sport and that means I want to be at Daytona when they race here. That was the choice I made a long time ago and feel very comfortable here.”
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The two-time Daytona 500 winner retired last season and was back at the track in a much different role. He served as grand marshal and delivered an enthusiastic “Drivers, start your engines” to start the race. He kept it “pretty traditional” while wearing a 1987 Speedweeks T-shirt. But he was definitely energized as he got the race started.
He said he doesn’t dwell on the anniversary of his father’s passing, but was aware of his father’s presence at Daytona.
“I try to make him proud in everything I do, but I don’t feel an instinct to do anything to honor him,” Junior said. “His fans do that on a pretty regular basis. They love to talk about him and remember him, so you hear about him everywhere you go. As I’ve been around the track the last couple days, I’ve had a lot of conversations about Dad already. It’s always good.”
Earnhardt watched the race from atop Alex Bowman’s pit box. Bowman replaced Earnhardt in the No. 88 Chevrolet and started the 500 from the pole.
Earnhardt expected to miss being behind the wheel for NASCAR’s signature event. But he quickly added that there are parts he won’t miss.
“The pressure of performance,” he said. “You put a lot of pressure on yourself. There’s a lot of pressure, a lot of expectations from outside. That’s for every driver.”
Especially for Earnhardt, who recalled how much relief he felt when he first won the Daytona 500 in 2004. It took his father 20 attempts and numerous heartbreaking losses before finally winning the Daytona 500 in 1998.
“I watched Dad try and try and try and seen the disappointment and seen the suffering and experienced it with him as part of the family,” he said. “We all went where he went emotionally. So many almost-close wins. It just built that importance up inside me as I watched him go through that quest. When I won it early in my career, I felt blessed and relieved that I got it out of the way. I don’t have to spend 20 years trying.”
Earnhardt repeated the feat in 2014.
“After about eight years, I was thinking, ‘You know, I don’t want to be greedy, but it sure would be good to feel that one more time,'” he said. “It goes with you the rest of your life. I’ll be taking pictures with Daytona 500 champions for the rest of my life or get together with that group.”
Jeffrey Earnhardt, the grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt and Junior’s nephew, extended the family’s streak of Daytona 500 starts to 40 consecutive years. Jeffrey Earnhardt wore a tribute helmet to honor Dale Earnhardt and finished 21st.
“I know how much he wants to be racing and competing, and this is the biggest race of the year,” Junior said. “I’m hoping for some good fortune for him this year that he can enjoy, and I know he wants to be in the sport, so I’m pulling for him to do that and accomplish that.”
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