July 7, 2001. Daytona, Florida. It was one of, if not the most emotional race in NASCAR history as Dale Earnhardt Jr. won on the same superspeedway that had tragically taken his father’s life on the last lap of the Daytona 500 just months before.
The summer race at Daytona was always run on the first Saturday of the month, closest to the July 4th holiday weekend. It was a festive environment, combining the race with the nation’s birthday. However, in 2020, that changed when NASCAR moved the race to August. Many fans hoped and still hope it would one day return to that first Saturday in July. According to Earnhardt, it’s not going to happen, and you’ll never guess why.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins emotional Daytona July 2001 race
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has regularly talked about the July 2001 race at Daytona on his podcast. That race took on special meaning for the driver and the fans in attendance and watching on TV because of what had happened months before.
The two-time Daytona 500 winner has also openly admitted that he visited the site of his father’s death before the race to ensure his head was right. However, once the green flag dropped, all those thoughts went out the window, and he focused on racing but with a different mindset.
“My car was so fast and I was just in this weird frame of mind that nothing could touch me,” he told NBC in a special piece aired in 2021 on the 20th anniversary. “I don’t know how to explain it. I wasn’t afraid of anything. I just felt like I was invincible.”
And he drove like it. He rocketed to the lead late in the race to the roar of the fans in the stands and won in one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
Earnhardt says Daytona July race likely won’t happen again
In 2020, after racing at Daytona on that early July date since 1988, NASCAR moved the race to August and the final race of the regular season. Because the superspeedway is considered a wild card race where anyone can win, including the lower-tier teams, the intent was the race would produce additional excitement because of the “win and you’re in” playoff format. In other words, any team not currently in the playoffs could potentially make the postseason in that last race of the regular season.
The move was unsurprisingly met with resistance by fans who preferred the July 4th holiday and racing tradition. Since the change, some fans have remained vocal about returning to that date. According to Earnhardt, it isn’t going to happen for a surprising reason.
“I heard that the city of Daytona doesn’t want the race back on July 4,” Earnhardt said on this week’s episode of the Dale Jr. Download. “They can fill the hotels in that town with July 4 folks without a race and that race fills those same hotels on another weekend. So the town gets a double-bang when the race isn’t on the Fourth. Unfortunately, now that they’ve realized that, I don’t know that Daytona would ever get back to the Fourth.”
2001 race remembered for conspiracy
While most fans remember Earnhardt’s victory at the July 2001 race as a healing moment for the sport, some, including one driver, in particular, remembered it for a very different reason — conspiracy.
Jimmy Spencer questioned the legitimacy of Earnhardt’s win from the outset.
“I knew going in that the 8 car (Earnhardt) was going to win this race,” Spencer told reporters. “Something was fictitious, and he was really fast the other night. They were fast down here in February. It’s not ironic that the 8 car would win with what happened here in February.”
In June 2021, after years of having beef, Spencer appeared as a guest on Earnhardt’s podcast. While the exchange was uncomfortable at times, the pair cleared the air.
“It bothered me,” Earnhardt told his guest, referring to what was said in 2001. “But it’s good to sit here and talk about it. It’s good for me anyways. I don’t know if it’s good for you to sit here and talk about it.” The pair both laughed.
There are plenty of fond memories from the July Daytona race. Going forward, there will be many more made in August with teams battling to make the playoffs. It will just be minus the festive holiday celebration and conspiracies.