The added muscle was evident during Speedweeks. Dale Jarrett, a Yates driver, won the Bud Shootout on Feb. 7. Then Greg Biffle, a Roush driver, captured the pole to the 500—Roush's first pole at Daytona in his 16 years of stock car racing. Then another Yates driver, Elliott Sadler, took the checkered flag in the second Gatorade 125 qualifying race. (Earnhardt had won the first.) "The Fords actually have a gun at a gun-fight now," Sadler said after winning his 125, "instead of what we had last year."
On Sunday, however, the Fords couldn't catch Earnhardt. Although he didn't have his No. 1 drafting partner to work with for much of the race—Waltrip was knocked out of the 500 on Lap 71 when he was sent barrel rolling through the grass along the back-stretch in a 12-car melee that was this year's version of Daytona's annual Big One—Junior still had enough juice in his Chevy engine to stay near the front. And unlike many drivers he didn't struggle with NASCAR's new softer-compound Goodyear tires, which, once they wore down, caused some of the cars to slide around the track as if they were on ice.
"The new tires definitely wear out quicker," said Sadler, who finished seventh on Sunday. "This puts it on the crew chief and the driver to work on handling and get the car to work throughout the whole run."
It has been 10 years since NASCAR used a tire this soft, and in the days leading up to the 500, crew chiefs throughout the garage could be seen rubbing their hands over their car's tires after practice in the manner of dog owners examining their hounds for ticks, trying to determine how quickly the rubber burned off the tire. Last season's Goodyears were so durable that many crew chiefs changed only two tires during pit stops—in some cases, none at all—to save time and gain track position. As a result several races were decided by pit strategy (yawn) and fuel economy (bigger yawn) rather than by on-the-track maneuvering. But with the NASCAR-mandated softer tire, which grips the track better while it lasts, a two-tire-change pit stop is a crapshoot because the new tires are quick to blister and flake and cause handling problems. Rookie Scott Wimmer learned this the hard way on Sunday: He left the pits with the lead on Lap 171 after putting on only two new tires. Four laps later Stewart and Junior whizzed by, leaving Wimmer far behind.
"You definitely have to drive the car because of the new tires," says 2003 points champion Matt Kenseth. "You just can't hold the accelerator to the mat and steer like you used to, so for a driver, that's fun."
Kenseth and Earnhardt Jr. were both Cup rookies in the same year, 2000, and they are as close friends as any two drivers on the circuit. During the off-season Kenseth was asked whether Junior was a serious threat to win his first championship in 2004. "He's as talented as any driver out there," Kenseth said, "so there's no question he can do it. Plus, he's driving with more confidence than ever before."
"There's days when I feel like I'm as good as Dad was," says Junior, "but he was pretty tough. Even if you thought you were better than him, he just had a way of proving you wrong at anything." Six years ago Sunday, the man who had a way of proving you wrong at anything climbed out of his number 3 Good-wrench Chevy in Victory Lane at Daytona. The 46-year-old then looked out to the crowd, and for the only time in his racing career, his eyes clouded over with tears in public. On Sunday his boy, after zipping to the checkered flag, stopped his car at the track's start-finish line. The grandstands shook with excitement; fans pressed into the fence, wanting to get close to NASCAR's brightest star. Then Junior climbed out of his Budweiser Chevy. He took off his helmet, gazed up to the grandstands and, with wet eyes, blew a kiss up to his fans.
The true Earnhardt believer will tell you that something magical happened just then, that the kiss kept on floating—up and up, all the way to the heavens.