When he looks at the picture, he's a boy again, only six years old. He's wrapping his string-bean arms around the neck of his daddy, Dale Earnhardt Sr. The photograph, snapped near the Earnhardt farm in Mooresville, N.C., in 1980, captures the father tenderly patting his towheaded youngest son on the back. Looking at the old color image, you can almost hear Dale Sr.'s. gravelly voice telling Dale Jr., "There, there, son, everything will be O.K."
A week before Sunday's running of the 46th Daytona 500, the man who will forever be known as Dale Earnhardt's boy sat in the cool of his motor home in-the Daytona International Speedway infield and examined this treasured family photograph; The most important race of his Life, as he-would later describe this year's 500, was approaching. With those steely Earnhardt eyes, Dale Jr. looked at his namesake, the stock car racing legend, the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the seven-time Winston Cup champion. He looked at him as he had so many times when they were together at Daytona, and he let the memories, both good and terrible, wash over him.
"The things that have happened here [at Daytona] affected so many people who are close to me," said Earnhardt, 29. "Every time we come to Daytona...it feels like I'm closer to Dad. But at the same time it's a reminder of losing him. So I wanted to come down here and win."
Six years to the day after his father realized his greatest triumph by winning his only Daytona 500, and three years to the week after Senior died in a crash on the last turn of the last lap of the 500, Junior outdueled 2002 Winston Cup champion Tony Stewart to win the Great American Race. How big was Junior's first Daytona 500 victory to NASCAR fans? Imagine Vince Lombardi's kid coaching an NFL team to a Super Bowl title. Or Babe Ruth's great-grandson leading the Yankees to victory in the World Series. To NASCAR Nation, this was an almost-too-good-to-be-true story. Junior's triumph seemed to cast a spell over the entire garage. Rival drivers, rival pit crews, even rival owners told any microphone they could find how happy they were for Little E.
"Considering what this kid has gone through, losing his father here at the Daytona 500, it's nice to see him get his victory," a gracious Stewart said after the race. "I think his father's really proud today."
On Lap 181 of 200, Stewart was a car length ahead of Junior as the two streaked around Turn 2. Earnhardt had been stalking Stewart for 30 laps, darting high and low in Stewart's rearview mirror, waiting for the perfect moment to pass. Then, in a few racing heartbeats, it happened. Junior slingshot through Turns 3 and 4, building momentum. When Stewart drove high to block Earnhardt's Chevy on the front straightaway, Junior—in a move that seemed cribbed from the old man's playbook—swerved down across Stewart's back bumper and claimed the inside position. He then lead-footed it to the lead. "I had a head of steam," said Junior, who drives for Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), the team founded by his father and his stepmother, Theresa, in 1980. "After that, I just started counting down the laps."
By taking the checkered flag at Daytona, DEI solidified its status as the top team on the superspeedways, where the cars have restrictor plates on their carburetors to reduce horsepower and keep speeds down. DEI drivers Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip have now won 10 of the last 13 restrictor-plate races. Though Dale Sr. piled up a total of 34 wins at Daytona during his career, it took him 20 tries to win the 500. His flameouts in the Great American Race haunted him from one February to the next, and when he created DEI, he was determined to make superspeedway dominance the team's hallmark. Today the team employs four engine builders who work only on restrictor-plate engines—the most of any team in the Nextel Cup series (renamed from Winston Cup after last season).
"Dale Sr. absolutely loved the plate races," said DEI director of motor sports Richie Gilmore as he leaned against Junior's hauler four hours before the 500. "His comment always was, 'Let's get the best stuff and not lease it to anyone else.' I remember he'd usually come into the engine shop at 7:30 in the morning, after he'd been working on his farm, and if we weren't busting our tails, we'd soon be looking for new work. It still seems like Dale is watching over us and demanding our best effort."
During Speedweeks, the two-week festival of racing and qualifying leading up to the 500, it appeared that the Ford cars would mount an attack on DEI's restrictor-plate hegemony. The Ford engine program received an unexpected boost in October on the day before the Georgia 500 in Atlanta, when Robert Yates, a Ford team owner, told Jack Roush, owner of another Ford team, that they needed to talk. Roush was flabbergasted. Because the two owners viewed each other as rivals, they hadn't said a word to each other during the season for 15 years. (Unlike the Chevy and Dodge teams, the Ford teams did not share information.) Nonetheless, Roush agreed to the sit-down. Yates made a proposition: He had a world-class 85,000-square-foot engine shop in Mooresville, and he wanted Roush to move in his engine development team and forge a partnership. "I said we'd do it 50-50," says Yates. "We would open up everything and share resources and technology."
"I slept on it for 24 hours," says Roush, "and it made a lot of sense, so I agreed. Both of us then put our best pieces on the table, and we both found surprises. We took parts from both our engines, and we were able to increase our horsepower."