- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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It was predestined, predetermined and preconceived. There was no way Dale Earnhardt Jr. was going to lose Sunday's Daytona 500.
Don't believe me? Do the math. That Junior would take the checkered flag wasn't only in the cards, it was in the numbers. Call it NASCAR numerology, if you will.
It has been 3 years since Dale Earnhardt Sr. -- who drove the No. 3 car -- was killed at Daytona. More precisely, Sunday was 3 days ahead of what will formally be the third anniversary of Earnhardt's death in a last-lap crash at the same Daytona International Speedway that his son conquered.
Little E's father played a huge part in the final outcome. It was almost as if Senior came back to enjoy a Sunday ride with his offspring.
Even Junior believed it.
"He was in the passenger's side with me all day. I'm sure he was having a blast," Junior said about his father after winning the race, becoming part of just the third father-son combination to capture Daytona 500 wins.
Dale Junior made his fifth Daytona 500 start in the No. 8 car on Sunday. Subtract 5 from 8 and what do you get? Three, of course.
NASCAR is a sport steeped in numbers, with particular emphasis on the numbers on the sides of each and every Nextel Cup car. Drivers often are identified not by name but rather by number. How many times have we seen one driver refer to a competitor as the "No. X (fill in the blank) car"?
While it was the driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet who won Sunday's race, it was actually the late driver of the No. 3 who helped and guided him to victory lane, in much the same way he tragically lost his life doing so for Michael Waltrip three years ago.
So it should be no surprise that the No. 3, which not-so-coincidentally was made famous by the elder Earnhardt, is so prevalent in Junior's win.
Sunday was six years to the day that Dale Sr. finally, in his 20th career Daytona 500 start, scored his first and only win in the Great American Race. Six years divided by two victories by Earnhardts, the final sum is 3.
In looking at the numerology that helped add up to the younger Earnhardt's biggest triumph to date, the No. 3 keeps coming back over and over.
Sure, Junior winning Sunday's race might have had a little to do with luck or skill. But to me, he won it with his father alongside, directing his young son as if he were reading a road map to find the shortest route between two points, namely the green and checkered flags.
DEI Inc. was seeking its third 500 victory in the last four years. When two-time winner and defending champ Michael Waltrip was knocked out in a frightening crash earlier in the day, DEI's fortunes rested solely upon Junior's shoulders, and he was not about to disappoint. Oh, and by the way, divide Waltrip's car number (No. 15) by the number of starts Junior has made in the 500 (5), and you get, what else, the number three.
But race day -- make that Junior's day -- was more than just numbers. It was also about things such as classy competitors and even a touch of magic at the time that Junior least expected it.
In one of the classiest moves of the day, runner-up Tony Stewart paid tribute to his good friend, Dale Jr., as well as the senior Earnhardt, by extending three fingers out his car window after the race in a tribute to both Senior and Junior.
That fitting tribute was preceded moments earlier when, in one of the biggest surprises of the day, Junior passed Stewart for the final time and for the lead with 19 laps to go. Even the younger Earnhardt was completely baffled at how he accomplished that. It was almost as if he suddenly got a push from a supernatural force ... namely his father.
"I couldn't believe I passed him (Stewart) by myself. It was like a magic trick. Good God, this is the greatest ever," Junior said after the race.
Add all those together and there's no way anyone but Dale Jr. was destined to win Sunday.
There are also a couple of extra bonuses.
First and foremost, while it took his father 20 years to do the trick, Junior did it in his fifth career start at Daytona. One thing he won't have to endure any more is being inundated with questions like his father about how many more years it'll take him to finally win the biggest race in stock car racing.
"I ain't got to worry about that no more," Earnhardt said with a combination of joy and near-exasperation in his voice.
In addition, Sunday's win wasn't only his first Daytona 500 triumph -- and potentially the first of many more to come in the future -- it also propelled the younger Earnhardt atop the points standings for the first time in his five-year Cup career.
For that matter, it could also be the foundation for building the way to his first Nextel Cup championship this season -- and potentially the first of many more of those to come, as well.
With his Daddy riding shotgun like he did Sunday, Junior finally proved the old saying true, "Like father, like son."
And they did it together -- by the numbers.
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.