Storybook ending for Junior at Daytona

Updated: February 17, 2004, 3:39 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The words echoed so loudly through the Daytona International Speedway that they sounded like they were meant for the heavens above.

Truth be told, they might have been.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s 2001 victory in the Pepsi 400, just five months after the death of his father on the same Daytona track, was a big deal. Some call it the most emotional victory in NASCAR history. But winning the actual Daytona 500, passing the same turn where his father's life ended so tragically three years earlier in the same race, on the same track, left Dale Earnhardt Jr. with one prevailing thought on Sunday.

"This has gotta be the greatest day of my life," he said.

And unlike the restrictor plate races of the past, when Dale Jr. would buddy up with teammate Michael Waltrip and destroy the competition, this Sunday he was on his own. Waltrip bowed out after a violent crash on lap 71, leaving Dale Jr. all by himself to win or lose.

So he won.

"Dale Jr. is the man," said Stevie Reeves, serving his first race as Earnhardt Jr.'s spotter. "I thought I had seen it all, but today topped it.

"Daytona is usually a place where you're so busy trying to help your guys out. But not for me today. Dale Jr. was incredible."

Tony Stewart understood that too. He was surprisingly pleased with a second-place finish, using the word "tickled" to describe his mood.

"(Dale Jr.) didn't win this because he got lucky and got in the right line at the right time," Stewart said. "He outdrove us and beat us, plain and simple. It was his day."

Dale Earnhardt Jr
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his first Daytona 500 win.

On the hood of Earnhardt Jr.'s Nextel Cup car was a replica of a Budweiser can with a "born-on date" on February 15, 2004. Fitting. It was six years ago to the day that Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his first Daytona 500. His son did it in his fifth try.

"Considering what that kid went through losing his father here at the Daytona 500," Stewart said, "It's nice to see this. I think his father's really proud today."

Once it was over, boy did the Budweiser team celebrate. As soon as Earnhardt Jr. rolled his car around Turn 4 after his victory lap, they leaped over the pit road wall and joined him at the center of the infield.

After Earnhardt Jr. did some victory spinouts in the grass, the entire group made a beeline to Victory Circle, where a 45-minute, Budweiser-filled celebration ensued. After that, the crew ran back to the outside wall of the main straightaway, tossing handfuls of sponsors hats they had been given in the victory circle over the fence to the remaining fans.

"We did it," crew member Tony Eury Jr. shouted to anyone who would listen. "We absolutely did it."

Even Teresa Earnhardt, Dale Sr.'s widow and Dale Jr.'s step mom, got into the act. The woman who normally keeps from the spotlight, who normally stays away from added attention, took the microphone in victory lane.

"Am I excited?" she asked. "Of course, I'm excited. This is a great place to be."

Earnhardt Jr. won the race with a giant bulls-eye on the center of his back. After the end of last season, he self-proclaimed his team as the one to beat for the 2004 Nextel Cup championship. Now, the biggest race of the year in his back pocket, the kid looks like he knew what he was talking about.

Yes, Dad would be proud.

"He was over in the passenger side riding with me," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I'm sure he was having a blast."

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Wayne.Drehs@espn3.com.

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