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Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins rainy Daytona 500, boosts spirits of NASCAR

Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Having struggled since 2006 to get to Victory Lane, Dale Earnhardt. Jr was once again No. 1.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- This time, it wasn't 'the Big One' that caused the biggest delay in the Daytona 500. It was hundreds of thousands of little ones, in the form of rain drops that fell long and steady on Sunday, pushing a scheduled daytime race well into the drenched Florida night.

Finally, after a record-setting rain delay of 6 hours and 22 minutes had turned Daytona International Speedway into the world's most expansive parking lot, the true Big One occurred, as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Great American Race for the first time in a decade. NASCAR Nation's favorite son once again had his moment in the sun.

"There are so many people pulling for you, who want to see you win," Earnhardt said after Sunday's race. "It's a big weight, and you get so caught up in trying to do what you can to make that happen. When you finish second (as Earnhardt had done in three of the previous four Daytona 500s) or you fall short, it's really disappointing. You're proud of that effort inside somewhere. But outwardly you're disappointed, because winning is all that matters.

This was probably the most popular victory in NASCAR since Earnhardt's father won his first and only Daytona 500 in 1998, on his 20th try. Junior has been in a notorious victory funk over the past seven seasons, winning only two times since 2006. And both those victories occurred in Michigan, far from Earnhardt's natural Southern home base.

GALLERIES: Classic photos of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. | His top career moments

Earnhardt's winless ways had not decreased his popularity. He remained a fan favorite nearly everywhere he went, even though the one place he rarely visited anymore was Victory Lane. But it did seem like Earnhardt's slump was taking the sport down with him. Fans have been steadily abandoning NASCAR since it hit a popularity peak around 2005. There are a number of reasons why attendance and television ratings have declined since then, led by the economy. But it is hard to ignore that the downturn coincides precisely with Earnhardt's slide on the track.

NASCAR fans have been seeking a reason to get excited again, and the methodical success of Jimmie Johnson and the constant tweaking of the championship points system simply wasn't getting it done. No, what NASCAR desperately needed was to see Earnhardt win in a big way on a grand stage, the way he did so often during the first five seasons of his Sprint Cup Series career, from 2000 through 2004. Earnhardt won 15 times during that span, flashing restrictor-plate dominance at Daytona and Talladega, and picking up victories across the country, from Atlanta to Bristol to Texas to Phoenix.

How else to explain the noisy reaction that swept across Daytona International Speedway in the moments after Earnhardt roared across the finish line. A woman in a No. 88 shirt ran through the track's infield Fan Zone yelling, "He did it! He did it!" A man stood outside Victory Lane and repeatedly blared an air horn as Earnhardt accepted the winner's trophy. Nearby, two female fans stood on a bench, craning to get a glimpse of their hero, and screamed "Dale!" over and over and over again.

And it wasn't just the fans who felt this way. A number of people throughout NASCAR, understanding completely that a rising Earnhardt tide has the ability to lift the sport's collective boat, did not hesitate to acknowledge the importance's of his Daytona 500 victory.

SI Now: Dale Earnhardt Jr. honors father's legacy
On Monday's SI Now, Dale Earnhardt Jr. discussed what it meant to win the race at the Daytona 500 track where his father was killed in a fatal accident and how he is honored by NASCAR's tribute to his father's legacy.

"It's big for a lot of reasons," said second-place finisher Denny Hamlin. "It's obviously very significant anytime (an) Earnhardt wins at Daytona."

"It's good for NASCAR," said Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt's car owner. "It's good for all of us."

When Johnson, who is Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, was asked about his fifth-place finish, he replied. "That doesn't mean anything. I want to talk about my teammate and the awesome job he did.

"I knew there was no chance of me winning on that final restart (with two laps to go). So I was rooting like crazy for that 88 (Earnhardt) to get to Victory Lane. He's been knocking on the door for a number of years, and he got it done tonight. He doesn't have to worry about any of that stuff anymore. He's the man today."

Even other tracks were seeking to benefit from Earnhardt's victory. Moments after Sunday's race was over, Talladega Superspeedway sent out an email promoting its race in May that stated, "Congratulations Dale Jr.!! Cheer Dale Jr. to the checkered flag at Talladega Superspeedway! Two Tickets For $88."

Of course, this is a lot to put on one person. Lebron James is not expected to single-handedly carry the NBA. The NFL will not see a decline in popularity just because Peyton Manning didn't win the Super Bowl. Yet, much like Tiger Woods with the PGA Tour, the fortunes of NASCAR often seem to ebb and flow largely with Earnhardt's performance.

It is a burden that does not go unnoticed by Earnhardt. "It's not a weight when you're able to deliver. But it is a weight when you're not able to deliver. When people say that you are the face of the sport and you're running fifth and 10th every week, it's very challenging because you want to deliver, and you're not delivering. So this brings me a lot of joy. I don't know that I realize how big a deal it is. But I know I have a lot of fans who are really happy right now and really enjoy what we did tonight."

The fans began celebrating as soon as he took the checkered flag, and Earnhardt himself did not hesitate to show how much he enjoyed the victory. Well after midnight, as he walked into the Media Center to begin what became a nearly hour-long interview session, Earnhardt let out an old-fashioned whoop and holler, and then said, "I bet somebody ain't come in here and screamed like that in a long time."

He is correct. In fact, all of NASCAR hasn't screamed quite as loud as the noise the sport made Sunday night. For once, NASCAR had a Big One to celebrate.

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