I crossed the start/finish line for the last time with the checkered flag waving and crowd cheering. The weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders, and everything sort of went into slow motion. As I took that victory lap, I thought about many things: my family, the guys on the team, the many hours poured into this effort, and the hellacious party we were going to throw once I got back to North Carolina.
Victory Lane is a great place, but the whole staged show sucks all of the air out of any celebration. Ain't no way I'm driving there first.
First, I had to celebrate with the fans. I see 'em every lap cheering me on. Any extra motivation I needed was in those grandstands all day. It wasn't premeditated or scripted, but I stopped the car at the start/finish line and climbed out. I wanted to soak in the sight, sound and energy from the fans, and I wanted to celebrate with my team and thank them for all their hard work to get me here. They all ran across the grass to the car; I hope the photos of me hugging and high-fiving my team is the image that will live forever from this race. It will for me.
ReflectingA year later, I think back to that day and what it meant to me. My motivation now is to continue what my father started many years ago-a strong Earnhardt presence at Daytona. Together, we have 43 wins there. It's a proud tradition I think about every day, and I want it to continue.
I have nine wins in 27 races at Daytona (Busch, Cup, 24-Hours, qualifying races, and so on). Each year I can't wait to get back there. I look forward to taking on Speedweeks without the pressure of winning the Daytona 500 for the first time. Now I can go to Daytona and enjoy it for all it's worth, and I can focus on winning the 500 a second time.
As difficult as it was getting our first Daytona 500 win, I know getting the second will be even harder. It's no secret other teams have stepped up their restrictor-plate programs, and the gap DEI once had seems to be smaller and smaller every race. We used to go to Daytona and out-handle everybody. Those days are over.
Still, I wouldn't want to go to Daytona with any other team. And hopefully, with alittle bit of luck, we'll be leaving behind another race-winning car at Daytona USA.