Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly traded paint with the car
ahead of him, snatching the lead at the Daytona 500 with a brash,
fearless move. Just like his old man.
Earnhardt later drove off the track in front of the
main grandstand, spinning in the grass to celebrate his first Daytona
500 victory. Just like his old man.
Earnhardt won NASCAR's biggest event Sunday on the
same track that took his father's life three years ago, barreling past
Tony Stewart with 20 laps left with a maneuver that would have made
Junior showed the impatience of youth, needing only
five tries to win the race that bedeviled his father for 19 years. "He
was over in the passenger side with me," the 29-year-old Earnhardt
said during a jubilant celebration in Victory Lane. "I'm sure he was
having a blast."
The race was attended by President Bush, launched
the Nextel Cup era and came six years to the day that the Intimidator
won his first -- and only -- Daytona 500 on his 20th try.
It's still one of the sport's most cherished scenes:
the black No. 3 car rolling down pit road while the rival crews lined
up to congratulate Earnhardt before he pulled into Victory Lane.
Three years later, he was killed on a last-lap crash
in the 500, depriving the sport of a seven-time champion and its most
popular driver. "In a way, it feels like I'm closer to my dad," Junior
said. "At the same time, this is a reminder of losing him all over
At least the next generation is in good hands. In a
daring move that must have been borrowed from the Intimidator,
Earnhardt Jr. dipped to the inside without any drafting help and came
within a foot of Stewart's car at nearly 190 mph coming through the
trioval. Then Junior went right on by.
"I can't believe I passed him by myself," Earnhardt
said. "I don't know what was going on. It was like a magic trick."
Stewart tried valiantly to catch up, briefly pulling
beside Earnhardt coming out of turn two. But Junior showed his muscle
on the backstretch, keeping Stewart in the rearview mirror.
That's where Stewart stayed the rest of the way.
Earnhardt pulled away on the final lap, winning by about four car
lengths while the crowd of 180,000 -- many of them wearing Junior's
red and white colors -- erupted in celebration.
Earnhardt came back around and stopped his car at
the checkered finish line. He pumped his fist and jumped into the arms
of his crew, who lifted him on their shoulders for all to see. Then he
climbed back into the No. 8 Chevrolet and attempted a few doughnuts in
the grass -- just like his father after the 1998 race.
"I was taught so many lessons about this place
before I ever got behind the wheel," Earnhardt said. "I'm glad I don't
have to worry about (winning the 500) anymore."
The Earnhardts became the third father-son
combination to win the Daytona 500, joining Lee and Richard Petty and
Bobby and Davey Allison.