2004 Daytona 500 tribute: Allen Bestwick on calling Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s big wins
The signature voice behind Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first two NASCAR Cup Series victories at Daytona International Speedway belonged to Allen Bestwick.
After a memorable call from the July 7, 2001 race — when Earnhardt Jr. won in the first Cup race at the track where his father had died nearly five months earlier — Bestwick also set the scene on Feb. 15, 2004. That marked Earnhardt Jr.’s first Daytona 500 victory, six years to the day after his father’s only win in The Great American Race.
But when asked about the broadcasting symmetry that allowed him to close the loop on an epic arc of NASCAR history, Bestwick is reminded as much of the Earnhardts’ story as another NASCAR Hall of Famer (and fellow New Englander) – the late Ken Squier.
“To have the chance to broadcast the Daytona 500, to stand where one of my mentors, my heroes, my idols, Kenley, stood, that was the thing for me,” Bestwick told NBC Sports in an interview for a NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode about the 20-year anniversary of the 2004 Daytona 500. “We were stewards of that race, and I’m very proud of the work our group did. We did great television. We didn’t need to create the story of the Daytona 500. We just had to document it because it was always amazing and still is a whole thing in itself. So just to be there was, was a thrill and, and not one to be taken for granted.”
Squier, who died last November, handled play by play for the 1979 Daytona 500, the first flag-to-flag live national broadcast of a NASCAR race.
“He literally created the job that the rest of us have gotten to do for all these years,” Bestwick said of Squier. “To stand there in that spot and just think about that. I’ve had that same flash at Indianapolis, also. When ABC sent me in to start doing the Indy 500, to stand where Jim McKay stood — OK, wait, I used to sit on the floor of my parents’ family room in Coventry, Rhode Island, and watch this race on Sunday nights. And I’m standing here. And I’m the next steward of this great event. The biggest way that most people are going to consume this event. What an awesome responsibility and privilege.”
Bestwick worked his way from radio reporter to Motor Racing Network announcer to play-by-play for NASCAR on NBC.
He still gets asked about Earnhardt’s 2001 summer victory at Daytona more than any other of the thousands of races he’s worked in broadcasting. Bestwick’s famous “using lessons learned from his father” line was inspired by watching Earnhardt Jr.’s charge to the front, and being reminded of his father’s rally from 18th to first in the last five laps at Talladega in October 2000 (the final Cup win of the seven-time champion’s career).
“I’m not a pre-planner,” Bestwick said. “I don’t keep a sketch pad of catchphrases in my back pocket. I see it, I say it, or something inspires me. Watching Junior out the window from the NBC booth that night just reminded me of his dad, and it just kind of became words. I think sometimes we forget just how dominant Dale Earnhardt Sr. was at Daytona, even though that 500 eluded him so badly. In everything else he did, he was always a story and a factor at that racetrack somehow. So for Dale Jr. to continue that family legacy at the Speedway, that’s what popped into my head.”
There was an important distinction in the aftermath of both races.
“The thing that I remember most about the 2004 Daytona 500 is the difference in emotion after the checkered flag,” Bestwick said. “In 2001, there was this incredible sense of happiness mixed with this incredible sense of sadness and this, ‘I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel right now’ for everybody. God, what that kid must be thinking. He just won the race. He’s so happy about it, but he’s standing there at the place where he lost his dad five months ago.
“And in 2004, I just remember pure joy. Junior gets to enjoy Daytona. And he just won his sport’s biggest race, and it’s nothing but happiness. That’s the emotion I remember the most about that day, is just the unbridled happiness that everyone felt for that still very young man. To be able to celebrate that win in the way he was able to celebrate it.”
Bestwick is one of many voices in the NASCAR on NBC Podcast episode, which reflects on the Feb. 15, 2004 race coming at such a momentous crossroads in NASCAR history.
The podcast also explores:
—The debut of Nextel as the Cup Series’ first new title sponsor in 33 years and only the second ever (replacing R.J. Reynolds).
—Why NASCAR elected to start the “Chase for the Championship” playoff-style format with the 2004 season.
—A visit by President George W. Bush, who gave the command to start engines in the 2004 Daytona 500.
—The events before, during and after the race as Earnhardt won six years to the day of the only victory in The Great American Race by his late father, who was killed in a crash on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
More of Bestwick’s memories from that race and season also are woven throughout the episode.