The sign flapped from the back of a motor home hard by Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway, not 200 yards from the spot where the black number 3 Chevy had hit the wall in a fatal last-lap wreck two years ago. Dale Earnhardt, the sign proclaimed, was back at the Daytona 500, only this time WATCHING FROM A HIGHER GRAND STAND. Indeed, everywhere you looked, there was a reminder of the Intimidator: his face staring back at you from hundreds of T-shirts, a makeshift shrine erected in his honor in the infield and, above all, the two racing teams inextricably linked to him—Dale Earnhardt, Inc. (DEI), which he founded in 1996, and Richard Childress Racing (RCR), for which he won 67 races and six Winston Cup titles.
Those two teams spent the better part of Speed Weeks fighting it out for super-speedway supremacy, and in the end Earnhardt's gutsiest call as a car owner—hiring driver Michael Waltrip in 2001 despite Waltrip's age, 37, and Winston Cup record, 0 for 462—was once again vindicated. For the second time in three years Waltrip won the Great American Race. One day, perhaps, he'll be able to enjoy a normal victory celebration. In 2001 a shaken Waltrip hurried from Victory Lane to the hospital where Earnhardt had been taken after his last-lap crash. This time his postrace celebration was more upbeat yet still atypical. While Waltrip and his wife, Buffy, were sitting atop his team's pit-road war wagon, waiting out a second rain delay, NASCAR declared him the Daytona 500 winner after calling the race 91 laps short of the scheduled 200.
DEI and RCR take great pride in dominating restrictor-plate racing, and that conceit originated with Earnhardt, who won only one Daytona 500 in his 22-year Winston Cup career but was victorious in 34 other races at Daytona. "This was Dale's playground," says DEI executive vice president Ty Norris, "and if we weren't competitive here, he'd be embarrassed for us. We're not going to embarrass him. That's why we put so much effort into it."
Earnhardt's influence is still felt strongly at RCR, for whom he drove the last 17 years of his life and established a Daytona legacy that Childress's current stable has upheld. The RCR team has become so accustomed to success at the superspeedway by the shore that crew members were moping around after Kevin Harvick, driving Earnhardt's old car, qualified sixth for the 500. Childress was stunned by their reaction. "I said, 'You're disappointed with sixth? Man, I'd have kissed a monkey's butt in the winner's circle just to be in the top 10 down here before,' " he said, a reference to Earnhardt's early years on the circuit.
In addition to the Earnhardt legacy, DEI and RCR share information such as wind-tunnel data and body position. "It's like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in their prime," says Norris. "Even though they had a rivalry and were driven to beat each other, they had a friendship. That's where RCR and DEI are when it comes to these races."
Dale Earnhardt Jr., however, made sure the relationship between the two teams didn't get too warm and fuzzy. After RCR's Jeff Green unexpectedly nipped Junior for the pole on Feb. 10 and teammate Robby Gordon won the first 125-mile qualifying race three days later, Junior talked a little smack. "They've just got a volatile little situation over there," the DEI driver said of the uneasy relationship the RCR drivers have with one another. "You've got Richard Childress over there busting his ass for all these years to get what he's got, and I don't think those guys appreciate what the man is in this sport and the opportunity they have in his race cars." (Green's retort: "That's chickens—-.") Junior wasn't through. When asked about the impending showdown in Sunday's race, he added, "Michael and I would definitely whup 'em in a tag-team drafting match."
Waltrip and Junior navigate the draft with a skill reminiscent of Earnhardt the Elder, whose prowess on superspeedways spawned the legend that he could see the air as it flowed over cars, thus allowing him to avoid the rough air that would slow him down. While that tale is bunk, Earnhardt did have a drafting trick or two, which he kept secret. Over the years, however, Junior learned them by carefully watching his dad race and taking copious mental notes.
All that studying paid off for Junior, who took the checkered flag in four of the eight Winston Cup restrictor-plate races in 2001 and '02 and dominated Daytona this month, winning the Bud Shootout on Feb. 8, the second 125-mile qualifying race for the 500 and the Busch race on the eve of the main event. That put him in position to win an unprecedented four Speed Weeks races in one year. He also completely overshadowed Waltrip. Three days before the 500, after listing the qualities that make Junior great at restrictor-plate tracks—foresight, patience, a rudimentary grasp of aerodynamics—Norris, who also serves as Junior's spotter, added, "Michael's exactly the same. Michael's amazing at these places. He's as spectacular as Dale or Dale Jr. Now he's finally in equipment that allows him to showcase that talent."
Waltrip spent his formative years paying attention to his older brother, Darrell, who drove Winston Cup for 17 years. "I'd say [Junior and I] are historians of the sport," says the younger Waltrip. "We grew up around it, and we weren't goofing off all the time when people thought we were. We were watching and learning, so I think we are able to understand where we need to go [on superspeedways], and our cars are fast enough to get us there."
Thanks to their team's considerable resources, Junior and Waltrip routinely have the best rides. "I've heard they've got people working on restrictor-plate stuff all year long," said Green, sounding like a wide-eyed kid. "If you have people working on stuff for four races all year long, you're going to be ahead of the game."