TALLADEGA, Alabama — Sixteen years later, the sting and anger remain with Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The night of one of his greatest triumphs in NASCAR — if not his greatest — remains soured by questions that all was not legit when he won the July Daytona race, the first Cup race there since his father’s fatal crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
While Earnhardt celebrated his win that July night, Jimmy Spencer raised doubts about the legitimacy of the emotional victory.
“I knew going in that the 8 car (Earnhardt) was going to win this race,’’ Spencer said after the event. “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.’’
A few days later, Earnhardt challenged those comments: “It’s really bothered me pretty bad. That’s like the biggest race of my career. That was my biggest win. Aside from the wins that I had when my father was there, that is going to be a day that I’ll always remember. For somebody to question its credibility, question my credibility, I feel like that’s a slap in my face, a slap in my father’s face and a slap in (crew chief) Tony Eury’s face.
“I never drove any harder in my life. I went out there and got the lead and I was blocking all night long.’’
Even now, Earnhardt can’t forget Spencer’s comments.
When Earnhardt sees Spencer’s diecast cars in the office of a JR Motorsports employee, Earnhardt’s thoughts return to what Spencer suggested.
“I see those diecasts, that’s the only thing that I think about,’’ Earnhardt said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “So it bothers me today. A lot of times, myself included, you don’t think before you speak, but that was an incredible night for us in 2001 when we won that race. I just felt like even if he did feel that way, I was disappointed that he would do that and say that.
“For us to come back here the next race and win and have success over the next several years was sort of was like “Hey, it wasn’t a one-race fluke or illegal car, that’s just how good our program was at the plate tracks.’’
Earnhardt’s victory came during a three-plus season stretch of dominance by Dale Earnhardt Inc. The team won 10 of 13 restrictor-plate races between the 2001 Daytona 500 (won by DEI’s Michael Waltrip) and the 2004 Daytona 500 (won by Earnhardt).
Spencer wasn’t the only driver who seemed to raise questions about Earnhardt’s win in the July Daytona race. After the race, Johnny Benson said: “You don’t go by yourself on the outside and and make that kind of time up. But it’s OK. It was good that Junior won.’’
Earnhardt told the New York Times he received apologies from both Spencer and Benson shortly after the event.
“Johnny Benson came up to me, and he was really upset because some of what he said was taken out of context,” Earnhardt told the New York Times. “Spencer pretty much blatantly said what he said.’’
Nothing has changed for Earnhardt since.
“Of course, you know it’s Jimmy Spencer, it’s the kind of thing he does,’’ Earnhardt said. “I never really liked that too much and haven’t forgotten about. It’s hard to forget something like that.
“It was nice to keep winning and show people that that was legit. That was like for me, that’s the stuff movies are made of, to come back after you dad passes away and win that race was the greatest thing that I could imagine happening for me or anyone else, all his fans, all our family.’’