Earnhardt Jr. Wins Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Just like the born on date, February 15, 2004, on the special paint scheme on the Budweiser Chevrolet NASCAR fans will forever remember this date as the day Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500.

Six years from the date Dale Earnhardt Sr. won his first 500, Earnhardt Jr. held off Tony Stewart to win Sunday's 46th running of "The Great American Race" in his fifth attempt.

Rookie Scott Wimmer finished third in the Caterpillar Dodge. Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson rounded out the Top 5. Joe Nemechek, Elliott Sadler, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth and Dale Jarrett completed the Top 10 finishers.

Earnhardt took the lead with 19 laps to and was able to keep his DEI Chevy in front of Stewart to become the 29th different winner of the 500. The Earnhardt's are the third father and son to win the Daytona 500, joining Lee and Richard Petty as well as Bobby and Davey Allison.

"I'm the Daytona 500 champion! I can't believe it!" Earnhardt Jr. said in victory lane. "This has got to be the greatest day of my life."

"This is a hard race to win, it's a season in itself," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I saw it be lost so many times by Dad, I was taught so many lessons by this place before I even got behind the wheel. He was in the passenger seat right with me today and I am sure he had a blast."

After attending the race earlier to give the command to fire the engines, George W. Bush called Earnhardt Jr. to congratulate him during the post-race press conference. When Junior went to say goodbye to the President of the United States he said, "Take it easy man."

The potent DEI operation has won ten of the last 13 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series restrictor plate races and Earnhardt's win Sunday was the team's fifth Daytona triump.

Bud Pole Award winner Greg Biffle, who had to move to the back of the field after his team was forced to make an engine change after Saturday morning's final practice session, finished 12th.

The first caution of the day came out on Lap 7 after the engine expired in Mark Martin's Viagra Ford. Martin's teammate Jeff Burton and Dodge driver Kasey Kahne also suffered an engine loss.

"It went pretty fast," said Martin. "It started to go and then I had cars behind me that I couldn't just stop or get down because I was on the outside. I was stuck, so before I could get the engine to stop turning it was making all kinds of smoke and I couldn't see a thing."

The 500-mile race was interrupted by three accidents. The day's biggest came on Lap 71 when Johnny Sauter got loose on the backstretch which caused Brian Vickers to hit Michael Waltrip sending a bunch of cars spinning, including Waltrip who was then hit by Robby Gordon sending him on a wild roll in the grass. A handful of cars sustained heavy damage including Waltrip's Napa Chevrolet, which ended-up on its roof, but after emergency crews got Waltrip out of his car he walked away uninjured.

"I know Brian Vickers was right beside me in the middle and somebody must have ran into him and knocked him into me," said Waltrip. "I didn't have any reason to think he'd come up into me. All of a sudden we hit the wall.

"When the car stopped, I was pinned in the car bad. I felt like I was in a box and couldn't get out. My brother told me the other day that all the great ones have flipped at Daytona. So I guess I'm one of them now. It's just disappointing to have a good car and a chance to win another one and see it go up like that."

A total of twelve cars were involved in the accident, which included the cars of Johnny Benson, Terry Labonte, Scott Riggs, Kevin Lepage, Ryan Newman, Sterling Marlin, Jamie McMurray and John Andretti.

In all the race was slowed four times by caution for a total of 23 laps. There were 26 lead changes among ten drivers with Stewart leading the most laps of the race at 97 while Earnhardt was in front for 59. Earnhardt's winning average speed was 156.341 mph.

The Nextel Cup Series now moves to North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C. for next Sunday's Subway 400.

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