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Earnhardt Jr. takes victory at Daytona

Posted: Sunday, July 08, 2001

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. made a bold darting move to take the lead with just laps to go, then spun doughnuts around the infield and jumped on the hood of his car to celebrate his storybook victory.

Like father, like son.

Earnhardt triumphed Saturday night at the scene of his dad's death, winning the Pepsi 400 and producing the most poignant turn yet to this bittersweet season.

''You can't write a better script,'' Earnhardt said. ''I never would imagine this happening. Coming here and being so dominant, winning this race. I never will get to enjoy it, because I just can't believe it happened.''

Earnhardt led a remarkable 116 of 160 laps, but his dominance showed most at the critical finish in the first race at Daytona since The Intimidator's death.

Earnhardt won the race during a dramatic 1 1/2-lap run after a late yellow flag, darting in and out through traffic to overtake six drivers in the span of three miles -- the blink of an eye by standards set at a fast, restrictor-plate track like Daytona.

A few laps later, teammate and Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip overtook Bobby Labonte for the second position, then protected Earnhardt as he closed out the dramatic victory.

''I knew he would help,'' Earnhardt said. ''All I needed was someone to stay behind me.''

When it was over, Earnhardt rubbed his white car on the walls as he took his victory lap, leaving the right side with black scars, the same color as his dad's fabled No. 3 car.

After the drive into the infield and the doughnuts, Earnhardt climbed atop the car and thrust his hands skyward time and again. Waltrip joined him for a warm embrace, and the crews that make up Dale Earnhardt Inc. followed. It was a lot like the elder Earnhardt's celebration in 1998, when he finally won the Daytona 500.

Junior capped the celebration with a swan dive into the arms of the wellwishers -- The Intimidator never would have done that -- and later tried to put in perspective the latest chapter in a mindboggling five months.

''I can't imagine it. I can't imagine it,'' Earnhardt said. ''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 it's happening to me. I just have to stay close to my friends, the people who make me feel good, and maybe I'll figure it out.''

The drama was set up after the third and final yellow flag of the evening, which came with nine laps remaining, when Jeff Gordon's car started smoking, due to a wreck just a few laps earlier.

Three laps later, Earnhardt took the green flag in seventh place, behind Johnny Benson, Tony Stewart, Labonte and three other drivers who weren't a factor until the late accident.

But Earnhardt had the best car all night.

After he got the late lead, he got the help he needed from Waltrip, who remembered the Daytona 500, when The Intimidator got credit for holding off oncoming cars to allow Waltrip to win his first race and Earnhardt Jr. to finish second -- a touching gesture in Old Ironhead's final seconds.

Never did Waltrip consider going for the victory.

''I just told him this was what it's all about,'' Waltrip said. ''He called me the Monday after the Daytona 500. Of course we were all grieving. He just said, 'I was committed to you buddy.' Those words kept going through my mind.''

It was almost unanimous in the garage after the race: If it couldn't have been them, Junior was the one they wanted to see win.

''It's hard to imagine anybody you would want to win here any more than Little Earnhardt,'' Jeff Burton said. ''It's good to see. This sport lost a hero. A lot of people lost a hero, but he lost a hero and his dad.''

Lost in the late-race shuffling was the black flag given to Stewart for going below the yellow line, something drivers had been explicitly warned against in the pre-race meeting.

Stewart ignored the black flag and NASCAR penalized him by placing him at the back of the lead lap in 26th position.

After the race, the traditional Independence Day fireworks display was rife with tributes to The Intimidator, complete with a video retrospective and a light show featuring Earnhardt's famous No. 3.

But the real tribute came on the track, where the younger Earnhardt dominated the race, and showed the Earnhardt-like courage he needed late.

The Intimidator won 34 races at Daytona over his sterling career, and his son's first victory on the fabled track came on the 11-year anniversary of Earnhardt's first win in a main event -- the 1990 Pepsi 400.

Another, more subtle, acknowledgment of the changes that have swept over this sport since Earnhardt's death was that the race included only three caution flags and a single accident, which produced no major injuries. At the last restrictor-plate race in Talladega, there were no caution flags.

One possible conclusion: After witnessing four deaths in the past year, these drivers are no longer willing to take drastic risks on NASCAR's two fastest tracks. Mindful of the Daytona 500 tragedy, NASCAR president Mike Helton urged drivers in the pre-race meeting to ''be very thoughtful'' of their fellow competitors.

Elsewhere on the safety front, 23 drivers wore the Head and Neck Safety device and another 10 used a different restraint system, compared to just seven who wore the HANS at the Daytona 500 where Earnhardt died.

The lone accident involved 10 cars and came when rookie Kurt Busch tapped the back of Mike Skinner's car, a wreck that took polesitter Sterling Marlin and Gordon out of contention.

Marlin and the three fellow Dodge drivers who won the top four spots in qualifying weren't big factors. Ward Burton was the top Dodge driver, finishing fourth. But once again, Dodge's qualifying dominance at restrictor-plate tracks failed to produce a victory in this, the manufactuer's return to stock-car racing after a 15-year break.

This was Earnhardt's third career victory, not including The Winston all-star race last year, which was the last time he made it to Victory Lane. He won by 0.123 seconds, just a little over a car length, at an average speed of 157.601 mph.



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