DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. extracted a storybook triumph from the tragic scene of his father's death Saturday night, winning the Pepsi 400 and producing the most poignant turn yet to this bittersweet season.
Driving a white car on the same track where Dale Earnhardt's famed black machine hit the wall five months ago, Earnhardt Jr. dominated Daytona the way his father used to, proving he may indeed be ready to step in for NASCAR's fallen hero.
Pushed back to sixth place after a late yellow flag, Earnhardt regained the lead after just a lap and a half. A few laps later, teammate Michael Waltrip took the second position, then protected Earnhardt as he closed out the dramatic victory.
The celebration was an emotional outpouring fitting for the occasion, as Earnhardt finished his victory lap by spinning doughnuts near the finish line, just the way his daddy did when he finally broke through at the Daytona 500 in 1998.
When that was over, Junior emerged from the car, jumped to the hood and thrust both fists in the air, time and again. Waltrip joined him in the grass. Earnhardt Jr. hugged him, then did a mosh-pit dive into the crew members from all three Dale Earnhardt Inc. teams who mobbed him.
Also rushing toward the celebration was Chocolate Meyers, The Intimidator's longtime gasman, who was awash in tears, along with lots of folks on pit road and in the Earnhardt-loving crowd of about 180,000.
"I'll be crying sooner or later," Junior said. "I dedicate this win to him. There ain't nobody else."
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 a few laps earlier.
Earnhardt Jr. took the green flag in seventh, behind Johnny Benson, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte and four other drivers who weren't a factor until the late accident.
But Junior had the best car all night, and it took him very little time to prove it.
Then, after he got the 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 and Earnhardt Jr. to finish 1-2 — a touching gesture in his last moments on the racetrack.
Never did Waltrip consider going for the victory.
"I just told him this was what it's all about," Waltrip said, of the postrace celebration. "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."