The grandstands were packed and the television ratings were surging. Sprint had just signed on as the new title sponsor of the Cup series and a 10-race Chase for the championship was set to make its debut at the end of the season.
So when Dale Earnhardt Jr. kicked off 2004 by winning his first Daytona 500, it seemed like just another stroke of luck for a sport speeding headlong into a bright future.
It also seemed like the beginning of big things for Earnhardt, who went on to win six races in 2004 on his way to a fifth-place finish in NASCAR’s first 10-race playoff. At 29 years old, Junior seemed to be at the place in a driver's career where potential and experience often merge into mastery. All signs pointed to Earnhardt reaching his prime as a race car driver.
Ten years later, both NASCAR and its most popular driver arrived in Daytona Beach with a lost decade filling up their rearview mirror.
After deftly walking the line between Main Street and Madison Avenue for so many years, NASCAR lost its balance, prompting a large portion of its fan base to lose interest with the increasingly corporate product.
The governing body also lost its Midas touch on the competition front, introducing the horrendous Car of Tomorrow before scrapping it in favor of a highly touted Gen-6 car that did little to improve competition during its first season on the track in 2013. NASCAR’s woes reached a new low with a high-profile scandal involving race manipulation in Richmond near the end of last season.
By the end of last season, Talladega Superspeedway announced plans to tear down an 18,000-seat grandstand while many other tracks, Daytona included, were drawing up plans to reduce seating capacity in order to dodge the embarrassment of seeing a sea of empty seats on race telecasts.
For Junior, the 2004 season had become nothing more than a high-water mark in a career that was spiraling into disappointment. After winning six races that season, he only managed four wins from 2005-2013 and became a symbol of futility along the way thanks to some lengthy droughts between wins.
The pressure only increased after a messy divorce from Dale Earnhardt Inc. during the 2007 season led him to jump to Hendrick Motorsports, the premier team in the Sprint Cup garage. Junior’s fans felt renewed hope when Earnhardt climbed behind the wheel of the No. 88 Chevrolet because they knew he finally had the best equipment at his disposal.
But two wins and five largely disappointing seasons later, Earnhardt trudged into Daytona staring the big 4-0 in the face. That world of potential both Earnhardt and NASCAR seemed to have melted away like fog under a bright, morning sun.
There’s no mistaking the fact that NASCAR and Earnhardt both desperately needed a win Sunday. And on the morning after Earnhardt’s stirring triumph under the lights in Daytona, it seems like both parties scored a big one.
After years of bad luck that often devolved into unintentional comedy, NASCAR’s biggest race finally caught a break yesterday. Everything from a crumbling race surface to rain to Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a jet dryer have conspired to cause delays that have marred the biggest race of the season, but oddly enough, bad weather may have actually helped matters this time around.
With most of the East Coast enjoying spring-like weather on Sunday, the deluge in Florida may have done NASCAR a huge favor by pushing the telecast into prime time. Once the sun went down and folks came home from a long day outdoors, they settled in front of the television just in time for the race to resume. And as luck would have it, they were treated to one of the better NASCAR races — and certainly one of the most compelling Daytona 500s — in quite some time.
By the time Earnhardt rolled down his window net and saluted the fans clamoring for a glimpse of him along the fence separating the grandstands from the track, it was hard not to feel the same rush of possibilities that swirled through the air in Daytona Beach 10 years ago.
Only time will tell whether this euphoria is just a blip on the radar or the beginning of better days for a sport and a driver who have been through the wringer over the past decade.
But for now, it’s hard to argue that Sunday’s Daytona 500 wasn’t the start of something better than before.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Times-News. On Twitter, he is @KTNSportsOngie. Reach him via email at email@example.com. You can hear him Monday mornings at 9:10 on “Good Morning Tri-Cities” with Tom Taylor on 870 AM and 100.7 FM.