The official name of the race was the Coke Zero 400, but for this one night it was the Great American Goodbye.
To not just a driver, but to a symbol, a nostalgia and a way of life.
You see, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the last bastion and bridge to what NASCAR used to be. He is the lone remaining driver who is old enough and popular enough to evoke memories of NASCAR’s bygone boom era.
“He became my favorite driver because he was his daddy’s son,” said Tommy Cowart, a landscaper from Jacksonville as he flipped the pork chops he was cooking on his gas grill in the Daytona infield Sunday. “When I watch Dale Jr. race, it makes me think back to when I fell in love with NASCAR.”
He takes a swig of his Budweiser.
“I don’t know if I’ll love it as much when he’s gone.”
For Junior Nation, this was one last journey through the past.
One final run at Daletona.
It’s just too bad, Junior’s Fourth of July fireworks fizzled into Daytona dud.
Just when it appeared he might be able to conjure up one last bit of Earnhardt wizardry after he went from being two laps down to climbing back to sixth place, his night ended on Lap 105 when Kevin Harvick spun in front of him and forced Junior into the wall. You could almost hear a collective sigh emanating from every corner of the track, and Junior seemed bothered he could not deliver a victory for the fans.
“Everything we do is for the fans,” Earnhardt said. “The reaction from the fans tonight made me feel great.