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Thursday July 30th, 2015 4:19PM

Earnhardt, Jr.'s Daytona 500 win lifts 'heavy weight'

By Jenna Fryer, AP Auto Racing Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There was a moment late in the Daytona 500 when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had a moment to catch his breath. It was clearly his race to lose and the tension ran thick through Junior Nation, all the way into his car.

Steve Letarte, the crew chief and cheerleader who had rebuilt Earnhardt's crumpled confidence and returned him to a championship contender, used the moment under caution to settle his driver.

"Having fun?" Letarte asked over the radio.

"Yeah, but it's the big prize, man. It's hard to enjoy it," Earnhardt said, before he paused. "I'm enjoying particular pieces of it, but the entire experience is driving me crazy."

That's the albatross that was strapped to the back of NASCAR's most popular driver as closed in on his second Daytona 500 victory. It had been 10 years since he won his first 500, and after three runner-up finishes the last four seasons in a race that had caused his family so much heartache and joy, the moment was overwhelming.

There's so much pressure on Earnhardt, who entered the season-opening showcase mired in a 55-race losing streak dating to 2012. He'd won just two races since joining mighty Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, and as he closes in on his 40th birthday, he is still searching for his first Cup championship.

It's been openly stated by the suits at NASCAR that when Junior wins, NASCAR's popularity surges. So under that theory, if he could just get it together, the days of flat television numbers and sagging attendance would certainly spike.

That's a lot of pressure to put on one guy, and it hit him as he readied himself for the homestretch Sunday night.

"It's a big race and you want to win it so badly, and your team wants to win so badly," he said afterward. "You realize at that moment that there are countless people watching on television and there are countless people sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on, and your team is over on the pit wall and your family back home - there are so many people pulling for you and want to see you win. It's a heavy weight."

This time, he delivered.

He emerged from a rain delay of more than six hours with the strongest car in the field. As other drivers struggled to keep busy during the lengthy break, Earnhardt said his concern was not consuming too much of the junk food stored in his motorhome.

He knew what he had in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

"I knew it was something special," he said. "I knew we had enough race car. I was a little bit nervous because the pressure was on me because there was plenty of car to do it."

Earnhardt handled every challenge over the final 50 miles. He shook off Greg Biffle, the peskiest foe, and then Carl Edwards. Lined up for a two-lap sprint to the finish, he found himself next to one-time protege Brad Keselowski, who had a car almost as strong as Earnhardt's.

But Earnhardt had teammate Jeff Gordon on his bumper to help on the final restart, and once he cleared Keselowski it was essentially over. Moves made by other drivers in the pack ruined Keselowski's pursuit and Denny Hamlin stormed through the field but didn't have the help he needed or enough laps to mount a proper charge.

Hamlin, who won two races earlier in Speedweeks and was going for the trifecta, was dejected with second place. But he noted the significance of the victory.

"Any time an Earnhardt wins at Daytona," he shrugged.

The late Dale Earnhardt won 34 races at Daytona International Speedway, but his only 500 victory came in 1998 in his 20th try. He was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 race, triggered while he tried to protect a 1-2 finish for Michael Waltrip and his son, who both drove for him.

Conspiracy has followed Earnhardt, Jr. since his father's death as fans wondered if some of his biggest career moments were freebies from NASCAR during a time of mourning. Third-place finisher Keselowski believes Daytona 500 win No. 2 cannot be challenged.

"I think this particular race, there's no drama. There's no feeling I think anybody could legitimately have that there's voodoo magic that he won," Keselowski said.

There was only euphoria.

NASCAR's favorite son won the biggest race and earned the first spot in the playoffs under a new championship format that rewards winning. Hendrick Motorsports got at least one week of respite from fans wondering why Earnhardt never wins.

And Earnhardt, at least for this week, got to remove that albatross. And after finally joining Twitter, he rewarded his fans - more than 400,000 despite only four tweets - by posting a Monday morning selfie, standing in front of the statue of his father at Daytona:

"Look who I ran into at the Daytona Experience. Dad's Happy!"
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