Minutes after Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 88 Chevrolet past the checkered line to win his second Daytona 500, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon made a declaration.
"The world is right right now -- Dale Junior just won the Daytona 500," Gordon said. "That's a sign it's going to be a great season."
Many NASCAR fans would likely agree.
For Earnhardt, it was retribution of a sort—he was runner-up in three of the previous four Daytona 500s, including finishing behind Kendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson last year. This year, however, Earnhardt outlasted all other comers in the longest day in Daytona 500 history.
The race started in the early afternoon, but after just 38 laps, a strong storm moved over the raceway that caused a delay of more than six hours. After dozens of trucks finally dried the track surface, the race resumed, making it a prime-time event.
Earnhardt more than warmed up to the bright lights, leading a total of 58 laps and outracing a hard-charging Denny Hamlin before a yellow caution flag caused by an accident between Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick allowed Earnhardt to walk away with his second victory.
"Winning this race is the greatest feeling that you could feel in this sport besides accepting the trophy for the championship," Earnhardt said. "I didn't know if I'd ever get the chance to feel it again and it feels just as good."
He first won the Daytona 500 just three years after his father, seven-time NASCAR champ Dale Earnhardt, was killed in 2001 when he collided with the wall in Turn 4 of the last lap.
Easily the most popular driver on the NASCAR circuit, Earnhardt also ended a drought of 55 winless races. He last crossed the checkered line in first place in Michigan in 2012.
The victory also assures that Earnhardt is automatically qualified for the season-ending Chase for the Sprint Cup. Under new rules in place this year, any race winner is automatically eligible for the end-of-year 10-race playoff.
But on Sunday night, it was all about joy for Earnhardt, both from fans and fellow racers.
"He's such a competitor, and there's no better race to win than the Daytona 500. Especially for Junior," Gordon told USA Today Sports. "There is something unique and special because of his fan base."
Third-place finisher Brad Keselowski, who owes his start in Sprint Cup racing to Earnhardt, agreed with Gordon.
"I'm happy for my friend,” Keselowski said. "He did a great job. He's been right there. He runs restrictor plates as an elite driver; he's probably in the top three. He hasn't gotten the win he deserved a couple of times from a whole bunch of circumstances out of his control. He was due."
This could in fact be a signature year for Earnhardt. After winning just twice in six seasons, he opened this season with the news that his long-time crew chief, Steve Letarte, would be retiring at the end of this season to become an analyst for NBC. Undaunted, Earnhardt made a bold statement.
"We're going for the jugular this year," he said.
It’s safe to say that after his performance on Sunday, he and his team will be aggressive throughout the course of the long season. And that’s a great thing for NASCAR as a whole.