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Jr.’s Win A Big Win For NASCAR

A six-hour-plus rain delay is no way to start the Great American Race. Television viewers get anxious and drift away. Those in attendance go crazy with boredom or just go home. That’s typical. Last week was different.

No one benefitted from the delay more than Jimmy Johnson, who was celebrated for winning the Daytona 500. Fox News got swept up in the excitement, posting on its Facebook page that Johnson had won his third such race. There was only one problem: Johnson didn’t win. That was last year’s Dayton 500 being rebroadcast by Fox.

The crawl across the bottom of the screen went largely unnoticed as fans by the thousands turned to social media to provide a running commentary on the race. Or as Deadspin put it, “Scores of Idiots Don’t Realize Fox Is Airing Last Year’s Daytona 500.”

I can’t criticize Fox too harshly – I was one of those idiots. I even made the site’s top 40 idiot list along with ESPNW, which excitedly reported Danica Patrick’s historic eighth-place finish.

For the record, I got three Tweets in before a rejoin made it clear I was getting excited about a race that finished 365 days ago. My “Boogety, boogety, boogety, racing under way at #Daytona500” was early. “No. 3 returns to #NASCAR for the first time since the death of the Intimidator” was correct but pointless at the time, and “#JeffGordon leading with #DanicaPatrick in second after 20 laps” was accurate but a year late.

Scores of hashtag associates commented on my lack of detail, including one that announced, “You made Deadspin.”

While millions were busy trying to fill the time void, including 50 Cent telling Michael Waltrip he’d give him a kiss if Waltrip won the 500, an exciting race with an important finish was about to start, eventually. Waltrip finished 41st, saving 50 the need to make an awkward retreat.

When the cars did return, a clean and orderly race devolved into a demolition derby with four multi-car crashes in the final 60 laps. One wreck involved 13 cars, another six, there was even a crash on the final lap.

The lead changed hands 42 times. It was awesome.

So was the move Dale Earnhardt Jr. made to take the lead after a crash on lap 193 (of 200). The driver best known as Junior won his second Daytona 500, releasing some well-established demons and setting off one of the greatest celebratory laps in history. It was exactly the ending Earnhardt and NASCAR needed.

Earnhardt hasn’t won at Daytona since 2004, finishing a frustrating second three times between 2010 and 2013. In fact, Junior has barely won at all. After winning six races in 2006, NASCAR’s most popular driver has won only five races, including this year’s 500. His post-race celebration showed the frustration.

He drove backward around the track, making it easier for him to see the remaining fans and for them to see him. Part of the lap came with team owner Rick Hendrick riding Dukes of Hazzard-style on the door. Earnhardt hugged everyone in sight and pumped his fists in a joyous manner befitting a man much younger. The win did even more. It helped re-established the sport’s biggest star.

NASCAR is 20 deep in contenders and boasts the most dominant athlete in sports, Jimmy Johnson. Johnson’s run at history – he is attempting to win a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup Championship – will remain the sport’s primary focus until he surpasses the mark. But for all his greatness, Johnson isn’t an Earnhardt. NASCAR needs the Intimidator’s kin. Junior is the sport’s best-paid driver. He moves merchandise, TV ratings and boasts an authenticity that attracts fans and the media.

As NASCAR chairman Brian France said following the race, “Anytime his fan base gets revved up, that’s a good thing. That’s good for him, and that’s good for us.”

Who knows if Earnhardt can keep the momentum going. If he does, it will be a banner year for NASCAR. If not, Johnson’s race to #Se7en (as it’s being promoted on Twitter) will keep things interesting.

Twitter: @SteveMurray84