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Race strikingly resembles Big E's last

There is a plethora of similarities between the races, but with one very important difference - the outcome.

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s scintillating powerhouse performance in winning the Pepsi 400 was a fitting conclusion to a week in which the NASCAR world was thinking about the man who wasn't there.

In fact, the specter of Dale Earnhardt and reminders of his death in a last-lap crash in the Feb. 18 Daytona 500 were everywhere in Saturday's race. Seemingly every driver who was near the crash played a significant role in the Pepsi 400.

The thrilling conclusion was nearly a carbon copy of the Daytona 500, only this time Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip switched positions, with Waltrip in second this time.

"I was committed to Dale Jr., just like he was to me in February," Waltrip said. "I wanted Dale Jr. to win so bad, and I wanted to be a part of it. I didn't want to finish 10th or 12th."

The finish was the second vivid reminder of the fateful Daytona 500. Just 26 laps into the Saturday's race, the same three cars were at the front as had been leading the way in the final laps in February: Earnhardt Jr. was in first, Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt's replacement, in second, and Waltrip in third.

That moment brought back eerie memories of Earnhardt's death, which had been on everyone's mind all week but was particularly acute for this trio. Waltrip and Junior drive for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and Harvick, a 25-year-old Winston Cup rookie, has had to deal with the pressure of replacing a legend.

There were other reminders. At one point in the race, Waltrip was third, just like Earnhardt had been in the final laps just before his death.

"I'll tell you when I really learned a lesson, when I was running third, protecting Dale Jr. and Rusty (Wallace). That's what Dale was doing in February," Waltrip said. "That's a handful. They were all over me.

"But I stayed committed. I wasn't about to bail out on them."

Earnhardt was NASCAR's most revered figure, and this was the Winston Cup circuit's first trip to Daytona since his death. While the lingering and controversial investigation of the crash has kept Earnhardt in the forefront of the news, the return to Daytona magnified things exponentially.

Three other drivers who were involved in Earnhardt's crash also played significant roles.

Wallace was driving behind Earnhardt Sr. in the final turn of the Daytona 500. Saturday he rushed up to second place in the middle of the race to challenge Earnhardt Jr. He wound up seventh.

"I can't think of a better script to plan than to come back to the track that took his father away from him," Wallace said. "To have him be able to honor him with the victory is pretty cool."

Ken Schrader crashed into a careening Earnhardt in February just before Earnhardt hit the wall. Schrader also emerged Saturday in mid-race as a threat at the front of the pack. On the final restart, with six laps to go, Schrader was third, but he faded to 15th.

Sterling Marlin made light contact with Earnhardt's left side just before Earnhardt veered into Schrader in February. Saturday, Marlin sat on the pole and had the best car early in the race, leading 20 of the first 23 laps before dropping back.

Marlin later was collected in a 12-car crash instigated by Kurt Busch, Mike Skinner and Mike Wallace with 19 laps remaining.

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