Thursday, November 23, 2017

Fennelly: At Daytona, fans of Earnhardts show their adoration



Welcome to Dale-tona

That's what it said on the handmade sign atop the motor home parked in Turn 2 of the Daytona International Speedway. Colleen Weaver had made the sign. Her husband, Ron, was sitting under the tent, next to the kiddie pool, near the barbecue, with extended family.

Ron remembered the 1998 day when Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500. He was there when Earnhardt died at the track. He was there the night Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona summer race on his first trip back after his father's death.

"The Earnhardts are part of history at this place," said Weaver, 63, of Land O'Lakes.

And now Dale Jr. is retiring from full-time NASCAR Cup racing after this season. Saturday's Coke Zero 400 might have been his last run at Daytona.

His legions pulled for magic, and Earnhardt provided some, coming from two laps down after scraping the wall to position himself for a late charge. But he wrecked out with 55 laps to go.

"Just wasn't meant to be," Earnhardt said.

No matter. It was Junior's night.

There were flags for his No. 88 car all over the Daytona infield. There were as many Earnhardt flags as American ones.

In the infield Fan Zone, where fans can look into drivers' garages through big windows, the glass at the No. 3 garage — Junior's — was covered with good-luck messages scribbled with grease pencils. When they ran out of room on the glass, they wrote on walls. Two hours before Saturday's race, people stood 12 deep to try and stare at Junior's vehicle.

Earnhardt was on the pole for Saturday's race. Anticipation was high. Debra and Forrest Maretz were up from Fort Myers.

"If Dale wins, there will be a party all night in Daytona," Debra said.

But what to do after Junior?

Debra likes Chase Elliott. Forrest likes Ty and Austin Dillon. And Jimmie Johnson.

"But we don't know how much longer Jimmie will be around," Forrest said. "There's a vacuum without Dale Jr."

Bob Almeida of Cape Coral was here the day Dale Earnhardt won his only Daytona 500. And when he died.

"You could have dropped a dime and heard it hit anywhere around this place," Almeida said. "It was just silent. Dale was the best there ever was. Junior was pretty good, too. It's tough to see no more Earnhardts."

But what about Jeffrey Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s grandson and Junior's nephew? He's driving in the Cup series, too.

"I just never followed Jeffrey," Almeida said. "He doesn't drive like the Earnhardts."

In Turn 4, where Dale Earnhardt slammed the wall and died in 2001, there was Mark Jackson of Miami. He had set up a bar near his inflatable kiddie pool — beer, shots, hard liquor, frozen drinks, music blasting into the night.

"I just don't know that the racing is going to be the same without him," Jackson said of Junior. "I'm signing up for Twitter today and inviting Dale to the pool bar if he wins. He can bring his whole … crew. But he probably won't show up."

In Turn 4, Jon Chartley of St. Cloud was adjusting a homemade sign on a fiberglass pole: Dale Jr. Thanks for the Memories.

Chartley has been coming here for years. He pointed to where Dale Earnhardt hit the outside wall in 2001.

"Right there," he said.

He helps do fiberglass work on boats. He said he worked on both of Dale Sr.'s boats in Palm Beach — Intimidator, his fishing boat, and Sunday Money, his yacht.

"The perfect names," Chartley said. "I got to talk to Dale three, four times."

He has never met Junior.

"Gonna miss him."

Contact Martin Fennelly at or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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