Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s greatest moments at Daytona International Speedway

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Triumph and transcendence. Tragedy and tumult.

Daytona International Speedway has been a training ground for life in many ways for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who has enjoyed many of his greatest success in NASCAR, and his greatest personal loss, at the 2.5-mile track.

After his seven-time champion father was killed in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt won in the Cup circuit’s next trip to Daytona less than five months later. It was the first of 17 victories that the Hendrick Motorsports driver has scored at the World Center of Racing, which has become inextricably linked to his family’s legacy. Earnhardt’s father is the winningest driver in Daytona history with 34 victories (including Cup, Xfinity, qualifiers and exhibition races, though it was an agonizing 20-year wait to win his first and only Daytona 500 in 1998).

“It makes me feel like I come from a better breed than most of the guys I’m racing against,” Earnhardt Jr. said about his lineage at Daytona after a 2003 victory in The Clash exhibition race. “I watched (his father) real close. I learned a lot about how to drive race cars by watching him, and I was probably watching more than he knew or anybody knew. I had a lot of practice just trying to think about, ‘Man, how did he lose that race or how did he win that race and why did the car do that?’ I’m running into all these situations and understanding certain things that I’ve seen over the years. He was really, really good at running at this track.”

So is Earnhardt Jr., and NBCSN will celebrate perhaps his greatest moment at Daytona ahead of his final start at the track as a full-time driver.

The second annual #NASCARThrowback special will feature Earnhardt’s 2004 Daytona 500 victory at 7 p.m. today on NBCSN. The interactive watch party, hosted by Dale Jarrett, Parker Kligerman and Carolyn Manno, will allow viewers to interact with drivers and NASCAR on NBC broadcasters on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the #NASCARThrowback.

Here are the greatest triumphs at Daytona for Earnhardt, who is retiring from Cup after 2017:

  1. Daytona 500, Feb. 15, 2004: Exactly six years after his father’s only victory in the Great American Race, Earnhardt won the race in his fifth attempt.He interrupted his postrace interview to take a call from President George W. Bush, who landed in Air Force One on a runway just behind the backstretch shortly before the race and gave the command to start engines. The race also signified the debut of new title sponsor Nextel and the dawn of NASCAR’s playoff era. All of it – even the president’s visit – was overshadowed by the winner, who passed Tony Stewart for the lead with 20 laps left. “Good God, I can’t believe it,” Earnhardt said. “This has got to be the greatest day of my life.”
  2. Coke Zero 400, July 7, 2001: In the first Cup race at Daytona after his father perished in Turn 4, Earnhardt Jr. drives from sixth to first in one lap on a restart with six laps left, celebrating with donuts in the infield and a memorable rooftop hug from Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip. Recalling the win in a 2015 interview with Steve Letarte (video below), Earnhardt talked about driving to the scene of his father’s fatal crash a few days ahead of the race and walking around “just seeing how I would feel. I don’t want to fall apart in front of all my guys. It was good. Dad loved this place, and I’m still at peace with this place and still love being here. Looking forward to racing many more years.”
  1. Daytona 500, Feb. 23, 2014: It was easy to lose track of how many significant developments emerged from Earnhardt’s second Daytona 500 victory (achieving something his late father never did). There was the end of a nearly two-year winless streak, the automatic qualification for the revamped championship playoff and the spontaneous decision to join Twitter in the wee hours after a frenetic race that took nearly 10 hours to complete because of a six-hour rain delay. “We’re going for the jugular this year,” he said, presaging a season in which he would score his highest victory total in 10 years.
  2. Xfinity race, July 2, 2010: After years of speculation over whether he ever would run his father’s iconic number, Earnhardt put the entire debate to bed with a magically sentimental performance. Driving a No. 3 Chevrolet with a blue and yellow Wrangler throwback paint scheme for JR Motorsports, Earnhardt led the final 34 laps and then declared that was his final ride with the number, which he also took to victory lane in 2002 at Daytona with a Richard Childress Racing car and ran from 1998-99 in Xfinity for Dale Earnhardt Inc. “I don’t ever want to do it again and I won’t ever change my mind,” Earnhardt Jr. said. 
  3. Xfinity race, Feb. 16 2004: The bookend to his greatest victory at Daytona. Roughly three hours after his winning Daytona 500 car was enshrined, Earnhardt started a postponed Xfinity race on five hours’ sleep and scored a dominant victory that capped a Speedweeks tripleheader of victories (he also won a qualifier). It was Earnhardt’s ninth win at the 2.5-mile oval in three years. “I feel like you can compare me to (his father) today, we’ve done so much over the last three years,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “All the wins I’ve got come from either the confidence of being an Earnhardt when you pull out on the track and just knowing what your dad accomplished and feeling like you might have that down inside you as well.”

Ryan Sieg, Shane Wilson ready for opportunity races in Xfinity playoffs

Ryan Sieg Racing
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When Shane Wilson answered his phone Tuesday he was in the process of leaving a UPS store, a weekly destination that’s part of his many crew chief duties at Ryan Sieg Racing.

This week the team had to: prepare three cars for Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond – including a car for Hermie Sadler, who is making his first Xfinity start since 2016 and the first ever for RSR, as well as repair a wrecked No. 93 car from Las Vegas and get Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet ready for a playoff run.

“Shoooo, we’re busy,” Wilson tells NBC Sports. “But, you know, good busy.”

That’s all been done with seven crew members at the team’s shop located just outside of Atlanta.

“We can go with seven-and-a-half to make sure I don’t leave anybody out,” jokes Wilson.

At the UPS store he had mailed a shock destined for Vermont. Its recipient would be Steve Hibberd, the team’s shock guy.

Hibberd is a former employee of Orleans Racing, the Truck Series effort for Brendan Gaughan in the early 2000s that Wilson led. He’s one of Wilson’s two “secret weapons.”

The other is another Orleans team member and former Dodge employee, Ryan Isabel, who provides engineering support for the team in identifying trends via a database of car setups.

This small, spread out operation helped Sieg produce the best season in his six years of full-time Xfinity competition and his second playoff berth, following his 2016 campaign.

He enters Richmond with two top fives and nine top 10s (matching his top 10s from the rest of his Xfinity career). His previous best total for top 10s was three in 2016, the first time he went to the playoffs.

But Wilson, a former long-time employee at Richard Childress Racing who crew chiefed for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, doesn’t seem too stressed about the playoffs before him or his limited resources. In fact, he’s having his most fun in NASCAR in “a long time.”

For a former electrician apprentice from Vermont, he could be doing worse.

“Whenever I have a bad day in racing I think about running pipe in December in Vermont along the Connecticut River,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

Ryan Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs for the second time in his career. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sieg and Wilson don’t want to hype up a potential Cinderella story for the Xfinity Series playoffs, even if it does have a few ingredients for that.

Sieg and his small team will start their playoff run at the track he had his best non-superspeedway performance earlier this year.

The April 12th race at Richmond saw Sieg start 13th, finished Stage 2 in fifth and then finish the race in fifth for his second top five of the year.

That leads into the Sept. 28 race on the Charlotte Roval. The opening round then closes out at Dover International Speedway.

Wilson sees the first round as three “opportunity races.”

“They’re not cookie cutter mile-and-a-halves, like Vegas,” Wilson says. “I really feel like we can go there and do well.

“I like road racing, Ryan doesn’t necessarily like road racing. I’m trying to get him in the state of mind and that’s a good opportunity race.”

But….

There are a few of those.

They make Wilson a “realist” about their situation, especially when it comes to facing the juggernauts of Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the other Cup-affiliated teams.

First, there’s the cars.

Those Cup-affiliated teams will likely be bringing new or updated cars to the track as the playoffs open.

Meanwhile, Sieg’s team will be using the same three cars they’ve been rotating through all year. Luckily for Wilson, they’re relatively new chassis the team purchased from Richard Childress Racing before this season, so he’s familiar with them.

“Here we will be running the same cars as we have been because that’s what we have,” Wilson says. “But I don’t think I’d ever switch that anyway, you gotta kind of ride the horse that got you there and try not to out trick yourself or race something that’s a little bit better cause you really need to bring something you know and that you’ve raced all year then see where you land.”

Then there’s the playoff points.

Sieg enters Richmond 11th in the standings with 2,001 points after the standings were reset. That one playoff point is a result of Sieg winning Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in March.

“Looking at it, those top three cars (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) have such a big advantage, you almost have to pencil them into Homestead,” Sieg says. “To make it through the first (round), that’s what we want to do and need to do. But if we don’t, be consistent over the seven races and get top 10 in points, I think we got eliminated in the first round in 2016, but we still finished ninth in the standings. So it’s always nice to be top 10 in points. … Anything can happen.”

However, with all that, there’s one additional tool in the No. 39 team’s utility belt they didn’t have in April.

They return to Richmond with a Cup pit crew, which they began using in May at Charlotte.

Why is that notable?

Shane Wilson, right, has been a NASCAR crew chief since the early 2000s in Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“We lost I think 30 spots on pit road that first race and still finished top five,” Sieg says.

Well, maybe it felt like 30.

“It wasn’t quite 30, but it was like 17 though,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “Which is still a lot.”

Even with a more experienced pit crew, Sieg’s philosophy on what happens on pit road has been drilled into him.

“We don’t want to gain spots on pit road, we don’t want to lose any either,” Sieg says. “We just want to maintain. I bet you in my career if you counted the number of times I’ve come off pit road I’ve probably lost more positions than I want to count. That’s part of being a small team. If we come in eighth and Brandon Jones is ninth, he’s got a Joe Gibbs pit crew. If they beat us by two seconds, you’re going to lose that spot. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot in my career. I’m not complaining, cause it’s part of what it is. So I just want to come in 10th and go out 10th. Yeah, it would be great to come out fourth, but that’s less realistic.”

And what if that Cup pit crew had been in place at Richmond six months ago?

“We might of won,” Wilson says. “Or we would have finished second. Because we passed two guys who finished in front of us about three different times. The only one we never passed was (winner Cole Custer).”

While advancing to the next round would be huge for Sieg’s team, Wilson’s goal for the next three races is straightforward: “finish ahead of four of those guys every week” and “accumulate enough points to make them have to race us at Dover.”

Liberty University extends William Byron sponsorship through 2021

Hendrick Motorsports
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Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday that Liberty University has reached a two-year agreement to extend its sponsorship of William Byron and his No. 24 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 team.

After sponsoring Byron for 12 Cup races in both 2018 and 2019, Liberty University will continue to support the 2018 Cup rookie of the year for an additional 12 Cup races in each of the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

In his second season of driving in the Cup series for HMS, Byron is currently taking part in his first NASCAR Cup playoffs. He’s ninth in the standings after this past Sunday’s playoff opening race at Las Vegas.

We have been by William Byron’s side as he’s risen through the ranks at a young age, and it is an honor to continue to support one of our very own in his career,” Liberty University president Jerry Falwell said in a statement. “William and Hendrick Motorsports have always been a perfect fit for Liberty University. We share the same values and are committed to the same mission that makes champions on the racetrack and champions in life.”

The 21-year-old Byron is a junior in Liberty University’s online program, working on an undergraduate business communications degree. The school has been a sponsor of Byron’s since he drove late model stock cars in 2014.

Liberty University has been a big part of my racing career and progression through NASCAR from basically the beginning,” Byron said. “Their support on and off the track, including with my studies, has been monumental.

They’ve been with me through numerous accomplishments, including race wins and championships, and I’m glad we were able to add to that list this season by making it into my first Cup Series playoffs. I’m excited about Liberty being back on board with the No. 24 team, and I look forward to what the future holds for us.”

Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity at Richmond

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Friday night marks the opening race of the Xfinity Series playoffs, while Saturday night will be the second race in the opening round of the Cup playoffs.

Wunderground.com predicts a temperature of 74 degrees Friday with 0% chance of precipitation when the green flag drops. Christopher Bell won last year’s Xfinity race. Cole Custer won at Richmond in April.

Wunderground.com predicts a temperature of 79 degrees Saturday with 0% chance of precipitation when the green flag drops for the Cup race. Kyle Busch won last year’s race. Martin Truex Jr. won this spring at Richmond.

Here is this weekend’s schedule:

(All times Eastern)

Friday, September 20

8 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

9:35-10:55 a.m. – Xfinity final practice (NBCSN)

11:35 a.m. – 12:25 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

1:35 – 2:25 p.m. – Cup final practice (NBCSN, MRN)

4:35 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying impound (single vehicle/two laps all positions) (NBCSN)

5:45 p.m. – Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

6:05 p.m. – Cup qualifying impound (single vehicle/two laps all positions) (NBCSN, MRN)

7 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – Xfinity race (Stages 75/150/250 laps = 187.5 miles) (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Saturday, September 21

1:30 p.m. – Cup garage open

5:30 p.m. – Cup driver/crew chief meeting

6:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

7:30 p.m. – Cup race (Stages 100/200/400 laps = 300 miles) (NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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Tune into NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

NBC Sports
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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Rutledge Wood will be joined by Kyle Petty and AJ Allmendinger.

In addition to discussing this weekend’s second race of the playoffs at Richmond Raceway, the guys will be taking your calls at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.