The worst part was the 5-hour-drive.
I sat at a Buffalo Wild Wings bar in Fayetteville, Ark. My dad sat to my right.
We watched as Jimmie Johnson, or “5-Time” as Darrell Waltrip lovingly called him, won his second Daytona 500.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., both mine and my dad’s favorite driver, had come up short on a last lap charge through the final two corners to finish second.
I spent the rest of the day driving for five hours in solitude back to Jonesboro. The conclusion of my senior year of college awaited. So did Johnson’s sixth Sprint Cup championship.
Twelve months passed.
At 11:17 p.m., almost three hours after the longest rain delay in the event’s history had ended, my dad, who took me to my first NASCAR race at the inaugural Winston Cup event at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997, called me for the fourth time that night.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., driving his National Guard sponsored Chevy, led what remained of the 43-car field down the Superstretch at Daytona on the final lap of the 500, a race he first won in 2004.
To say was I nervous would be an understatement. Junior had finished second in the race three out of the last four years. He hadn’t won a Sprint Cup race held outside of the state of Michigan since 2006, when I was in 9th grade.
I joyfully yelled into my phone as Kyle Busch and other drivers began crashing on the front stretch and Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag in first place for the first time since 2012. Then I had been sitting by a lake in Jonesboro, my dad narrating the race to me over the phone.
This time I got to watch on television as Junior, the most popular driver in the sport 11 years running, celebrated in victory lane.
This time it was different.
When he won the Pepsi 400 in 2001 and the Daytona 500 in 2004, the victories were still deeply ingrained with the emotion of losing his father. Now in 2014, the crowd, and myself cheering in Indianapolis, were doing so just for Junior.
This was completely and utterly his win. After years of struggling to reestablish the success expereinced at DEI with Hendrick Motorsports while teammate Johnson won six championships in eight years, the strongest emotion felt Sunday was relief.
“Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you can feel in this sport,” said Earnhardt. “Aside, obviously, from accepting the trophy for the championship. I didn’t know if I’d ever get a chance to feel that again. And it feels just as good, if not better, than the first because of how hard we tried year after year after year, running second all those years, and wondering why and what we needed to do.”
Whatever they did finally paid off.
The win came despite Earnhardt facing a gas mileage issue, something that bit him at Charlotte in 2011, and having a chunk of Bear Bond attached to his grill for the final five laps, inviting the chance of overheating.
Much was made of having his father’s No. 3 back on the track Sunday.
But the only thing that mattered at the end of the long night was having Dale Jr. and his No. 88 return to victory lane.
As Jeff Gordon said, “The world is right.”