Every sport has at least a handful of iconic venues; taking the field at Fenway Park or hitting the hardwood at Madison Square Garden, for example, is a pretty special experience. In the world of motorsports, though, few tracks can compare to the Daytona International Speedway. Just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr. about that.
While just about every motorsports fan is awed by Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a special relationship with the track; it is, of course, the site of his father’s tragic death. Despite that painful reality, though, Junior still loves the speedway as a truly special place.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. tragically died during the Daytona 500
When you climb behind the wheel of a race car, certain risks come with the territory. Unfortunately, those risks caught up with Dale Earnhardt Sr. during the 2001 running of the Daytona 500.
If you’re a racing fan, the events of February 18 need no introduction. In the final lap of the race, Earnhardt, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Sterling Marlin, and Ken Schrader were all at the head of the pack. While there’s some debate over whether he was blocking or trying to win himself, the rear of Earnhardt’s car made contact with the front of Marlin’s; the Intimidator then lost control and veered directly into the wall.
Although the race finished, Earnhardt’s life and career ended at that moment. That NASCAR legend suffered a fatal skull fracture on impact.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. chose to embrace Daytona as a special place
Given what happened on that fateful day in 2001, it would be understandable if Dale Earnhardt Jr. never wanted to return to Daytona International Speedway ever again. The driver, however, took the opposite approach and embraced the track as a truly special place.
“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,” Dale Jr. explained in 2018, according to For the Win. “So 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 a cornerstone of our series and the birthplace of speed and all the things – The Great American Race.”
Junior went on to say that he actively chose to embrace Daytona in a positive way rather; while it was the site of a major tragedy, that just made the track even more special.
“But I made peace with this place a long time ago with what happened and decided to remember this as the place where he lost his life. So that’s, to me, a positive, not a negative,” Earnhardt Jr. continued. “I didn’t want to feel any negative feelings when I came here because I love Daytona. I 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. So that was the choice I made a long time ago, and I feel very comfortable here. And I try to make him proud in everything I do.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. certainly made his dad proud at Daytona
During his time behind the wheel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found plenty of success. His performances at Daytona, however, would have certainly pleased his late father.
On July 7, 2001, Dale Jr. returned to the site of his dad’s death to race in the Pepsi 400. He claimed the checkered flag in dramatic fashion, paying a fitting tribute to the Intimidator. Junior went on to win plenty of races at the speedway, including two Daytona 500s; Dale Sr. only won one Daytona 500 during his decorated career.
Every motorsports fan will probably tell you that the Daytona International Speedway is a pretty special place. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would certainly agree.