DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Junior Nation will get one final chance to watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. chase an 18th-career Daytona Int’l Speedway victory on Saturday night, as the perennial fan favorite and two-time NASCAR XFINITY Series champion makes his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at the ‘World Center of Racing’.
The Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. Saturday, NBC, MRN, SiriusXM) marks the 17th race of Earnhardt’s final full-time season at the Cup level, as well as his 36th points-paying start at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
Chief among his accomplishments at Daytona include two Daytona 500 victories (2004, 2014) and two July race wins (2001, 2015), as well as 13 top-fives and an average finish of 10.5 across all of his points race appearances there.
Overall, though, Earnhardt’s legacy at Daytona is one of the best ever.
He has 17 total wins at the historic track, with six XFINITY wins, five Can-Am Duel qualifying race wins and two Advance Auto Parts Clash wins in addition to his four Cup triumphs, ranking third all-time behind only Tony Stewart (19) and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr. (34).
That means that, plain and simple, there’s a lot of history and a lot of memories to look back on going into Saturday night’s 400-mile summer classic.
“I have great memories at all of these tracks, Daytona included,” Earnhardt said in a team release. “It’s hard for me to put into words what (Saturday) being my last Cup race at Daytona might feel like because I don’t know what that is going to feel like … and you never say never. Our whole idea on finishing up the season is to try to show our appreciation and express that to our fans and everyone in the industry on making this an incredibly enjoyable ride.”
Earnhardt’s reign over the Daytona high banks began just five months after his father’s untimely passing on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
The son took the reins from the father and went on to help heal the sport in the first NASCAR weekend back at Daytona, winning arguably one of the most emotional and sentimental events in the sport’s history by leading 116 of 160 laps en route to the victory in what was then known as the Pepsi 400 that summer.
Earnhardt charged from sixth to first that night in the final six laps, taking the lead from Johnny Benson and going on to hold off Dale Earnhardt Incorporated teammate Michael Waltrip at the checkered flag.
“You couldn’t have written a better script,” Earnhardt said in victory lane that night.
His first Daytona 500 win came over Tony Stewart in 2004, six years to the day of his father’s lone 500 win in 1998, and he added a second one a decade later driving for Rick Hendrick.
In the early hours of the morning following that second Daytona 500 win in 2014, Earnhardt officially joined the conversation on Twitter as a result of a bet made earlier during Speedweeks.
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