Tears And Cheers Junior Wins

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dad would have been proud.

Every Winston Cup driver wanted to win in the series’ return to Daytona International Speedway after the death of Dale Earnhardt in the Daytona 500. But his boy, his namesake, wanted it more.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., blessed with a strong car and a fighting heart, won the Pepsi 400 on Saturday night. He did with a fierceness of will that was strikingly similar to the way his father used to race, holding the lead despite countless attempts to pass by his competitors.

“He was with me tonight,” Earnhardt Jr. said of his dad. “I don’t know how I did it. But he was there.

“You can’t write a better script. I never, I never would have imagined this happening. I never would have imagined coming here and being so dominant and winning this race. I probably never will get to enjoy it because I just can’t believe it happened.

“I can’t imagine it. I can’t sit here and understand it. It makes no sense to me. I can’t believe it’s happening to me. I don’t know why this is happening to me.”

Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip finished second in the reverse order of finish from the 500. Elliott Sadler was third, with Ward Burton fourth and Bobby Labonte fifth.

Tony Stewart came across the line sixth, but he was penalized for passing below the yellow line late in the race and was moved to 26th, the last car on the lead lap. NBC cameras captured Stewart being held back by team owner Joe Gibbs as the driver voiced his displeasure at Winston Cup director Gary Nelson.

As much as 45 minutes after the race, Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zipadelli were waiting outside the NASCAR trailer for official word.

After the penalty, Jerry Nadeau was moved up to sixth, followed by Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Brett Bodine and Mike Wallace.

The race was setting up for an interesting ending, as drivers needed to make one final green-flag pit stop with about 20 laps left. But a 12-car crash triggered when Mike Wallace slowed to make a pit stop made the race an 11-lap shootout.

As Wallace got to the inside to pit, Mike Skinner slowed behind him. But Kurt Busch didn’t slow as much, hitting Skinner in the back and turning him into traffic. Cars stacked up behind them and started piling in. Before it was over, points leader Jeff Gordon had sustained severe damage, too.

No driver was injured, however.

Earnhardt Jr. restarted the race in seventh place, as the six cars in front of him had pitted under green and stayed on the track during the caution.

The race went green on Lap 149 of 160, but Gordon’s smoking car brought out a yellow with nine laps left.

Gordon ended up 37th, but held on to his points lead over Dale Jarrett, who was 11th. Gordon leads by 48 over Jarrett and 76 over Ricky Rudd. Earnhardt Jr. moved up two spots to ninth in the points, 393 behind Gordon.

With six laps to go, the green flag waved again, with Earnhardt Jr. in sixth place. But he passed three cars in one lap, then slipped by Johnny Benson on the outside off Turn 4 on the next lap to take the lead.

“The car was just flying,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was just faster than everybody else’s. I could go right to the front, and when I got to the front, couldn’t nobody catch me, couldn’t nobody pull up on me.

“Every once and a while, you’ll have a car that will do that. You’ll have a car that will just be that dominant.”

Behind him, a mad scramble was on. With one lap to go, Waltrip slipped into second place, and Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t be beat with his teammate blocking behind him.

“All night long, I just wanted to be right there with him,” Waltrip said. “He had a fast enough car that he could win… At the end, it was just a matter of trying to get to the front. Fortunately, when I got to the front, the only guy I didn’t pass was Dale Jr. At that point, I just had to push him home.

“Passing him never was an option because I never had the opportunity.”

In the 500, Earnhardt Jr. and Earnhardt followed Waltrip on the last lap, then Earnhardt crashed. But Little E was behind Waltrip to the checkered flag. Saturday, the roles were reversed.

“I knew he was going to move because I helped him in the 500, and I told him that I helped him,” Earnhardt Jr. said.

After the checkered flag, Earnhardt Jr. did a quick donut in the grassy tri-oval and was joined by Waltrip. The two hugged atop Waltrip's car in celebration.

“All year long, people have been telling me they’re pulling for me,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was great, and you start to feel a little pressure, like ‘We want to win for these people that are real dedicated to us.’

“That’s why I pulled down on the front straightaway and jumped out. That was for the fans. That wasn’t for nobody else… I wanted to pull down there and jump up on top and hear them cheer. You get a jolt of lightning from it. It feels good.”

“I just told him, ‘This is what it’s all about,’ ” Waltrip said. “He called me on Monday morning after the Daytona 500. Of course, we were all grieving. The first thing he said is, ‘I was committed to you, buddy.’

“Those words kept going through my mind all night long. When I was running third behind he and Rusty, and I could’ve passed Rusty easily, I said, ‘Why do I want to do that? Dale Jr.’s having a nice ride right there in front. I’m going to stay here and fight the battle for him.’”

Earnhardt Jr.’s car seemed so strong it was almost unfair. He roared around Kevin Harvick – his dad’s replacement at Richard Childress Racing – on Lap 27, much to the delight of the large crowd at Daytona.

Once he got the lead, Earnhardt Jr. wouldn’t be passed. Oh, many drivers tried, most notably Skinner and Matt Kenseth.

On Lap 77, Skinner tried Earnhardt Jr., passing him on the backstretch. But Little E roared back by, holding the official lead at the start-finish line.

Later, Kenseth, a close friend of Earnhardt Jr.’s, made a move on the outside, but Earnhardt Jr. was again up to the task. On Lap 100, Earnhardt Jr. tried to protect the outside line, but Kenseth went even higher, nearly brushing the wall.

Kenseth cleared Earnhardt Jr. down the backstretch and moved several car lengths ahead. Again, however, Earnhardt Jr. simply cruised to the top spot at the line… needing little to no draft help.

Skinner tried again on Lap 108, and the two nearly touched in front of the main grandstands. Guess who led? Yep, Earnhardt Jr.

He didn’t grant interviews this week, preferring to focus on racing. He admitted, however, that his mind was on his dad when he took to the track Thursday, but those thoughts soon went away.

“The first lap I went around the race track was different, felt different, felt kinda tough,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “After the first qualifying run we did in practice, it was just like always after that. I didn’t think much about what happened here in February.

“I started the race today and was more nervous about how good my car was than anything else. As we were running and running, I started to realize how good the car was and I thought we might have a chance to win. I knew it was going to be a pretty big deal. It’s really big. I was just telling Tony we really don’t know how huge this is.”

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