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Son also rises to occasion

Dale Earnhardt Jr. charges at the end to win the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway, where his late father made his name.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 8, 2001


DAYTONA BEACH -- The father would've been so proud of the boy.

Dale Earnhardt would've grinned under that wiry brown mustache and reached to hug the son who has carried on the family legacy with such courage.

Yes, so proud.

Less than five months after his father crashed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and died, Dale Earnhardt Jr. dominated the Pepsi 400 and won in a manner fit for a storybook on Saturday.

"You can't write a better script," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I never would have imagined this happening. I never could have imagined coming here and being so dominant and winning this race. And I never probably will get to enjoy it because I just can't believe it happened."

It was NASCAR's first race at Daytona International Speedway since Earnhardt's black No. 3 hit the Turn 4 wall on Feb. 18. The outcome left many of the estimated 175,000 fans breathless -- either from screaming too loud or crying too much.

That included Michael Waltrip, who won the Daytona 500 with Earnhardt Jr., his Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate, behind him. Waltrip cozied up to Earnhardt Jr.'s rear bumper with less than two laps remaining and protected the boss's son from the rest of the field.

Earnhardt Jr. had done the same for Waltrip in February. Earnhardt Sr. was protecting both when he crashed and became the fourth major NASCAR driver in 10 months to die from a basal skull fracture.

"Passing him never was an option," Waltrip said. "He called me on the Monday morning after the Daytona 500 and of course we were all grieving and he said, 'I was committed to you, buddy.' Those words kept going through my mind all night long. ... At the end of the race I just pushed him home."

Two cautions in the last 18 laps put the outcome in doubt and relegated Earnhardt Jr., who led 116 of 160 laps, to seventh place on a restart six laps from the finish.

It mattered little for someone so confident his car could pass anyone in any situation.

The 26-year-old sliced to the front of the field with 4 1/2 laps remaining, passing Johnny Benson about 50 yards from where his father crashed 138 days earlier.

Tony Stewart tried to challenge Earnhardt Jr. as the field drove along the frontstretch, but dipped the left side of his Pontiac below the yellow line and was black-flagged by NASCAR.

Stewart refused to obey the black flag and was relegated to 26th position, the last car on the lead lap, after a NASCAR review. The penalty cost Stewart 65 points.

After the race, team owner Joe Gibbs and crew chief Greg Zippadelli had to restrain Stewart from going after Winston Cup director Gary Nelson. Stewart was already on probation for spinning Jeff Gordon out on pit road at Bristol in March.

Earnhardt Jr., who finished .123 seconds ahead of Waltrip, drove unchallenged the rest of the way for his third career victory.

Elliott Sadler finished third and Winston Cup points leader Jeff Gordon finished 37th after his engine blew on Lap 150 to bring out the final caution.

"We were able to break away and that was something I didn't think we were able to do," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I just kind of realized I had to get to the front the last eight laps or so."

After he crossed the finish line and slowed his No. 8 Chevy on the cooldown lap, Earnhardt Jr. drove onto the infield grass and turned doughnuts just as his father had done after winning the Daytona 500 in 1998.

Junior climbed out of car with his helmet still firmly on his head and pumped his fists in the air. Waltrip pulled alongside and the two had a tearful hug before Earnhardt Jr. dove off his car into the arms of his crew that had sprinted across pit road.

"This is as good as it gets," Earnhardt Jr. said.

That there was only one major wreck, a 10-car incident on Lap 142 that started when Kurt Busch tapped the rear bumper of Mike Skinner.

Three caution flags pointed to a newfound conservatism among drivers during superspeedway races, where NASCAR's aerodynamic rules are in place.

The rules were implemented first for the Winston 500 last October at Talladega Superspeedway and are designed to slow cars and improve racing at the two tracks, Daytona and Talladega, where restrictor plates have been used for 13 years.

The rules have accomplished their goal, there were 49 lead changes in the Daytona 500 alone and 14 on Saturday, but also create pack racing where one slip can mean disaster.

"I think we're all concerned about coming back to Daytona because of the rules package, because what (Stewart) did in the 19-car wreck," Jeff Burton said before the race. "That could happen. We are concerned about that."

"When you put that many cars in a big pack something is bound to happen. It may not happen Saturday night. It may not happen the next time at Talladega, but eventually it's going to happen."

But it didn't.

And Earnhardt Jr. promptly carried on his family's legacy at the track where his father won 34 races in all classes during a career that included seven Winston Cup championships.

"I dedicate this win to him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There ain't nobody else that I can dedicate it to who means more to me."

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