From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 23, 2004
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 photo, snapped near the Earnhardt farm in Mooresville, N.C., in 1980, captures the father patting his towheaded youngest son on the back. Looking at the old image, you can almost hear Dale Sr.'s gravelly voice telling Dale Jr., "There, there, son, everything will be O.K."
A week before the 46th running of the 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 500, was approaching. Dale Jr. looked at his namesake, the stock car legend, the Intimidator, the Man in Black, the seven-time 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 affected so many people who are close to me," said Earnhardt. "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 won his only Daytona 500, and three years to the week after Senior died in a crash on the last lap of the 500, Junior outdueled Tony Stewart to win the Great American Race. How big was Junior's 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 win seemed to cast a spell over the entire garage. Rival drivers, rival 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, 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 moment to pass. Then, in a heartbeat, it happened. Junior sling-shot through Turns 3 and 4, building momentum. When Stewart drove high to block on the frontstraight, Junior—in a move 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. "After that, I just started counting down the laps."
After crossing the finish line, Junior climbed out of his Chevy and took off his helmet. Gazing up to the grandstands with wet eyes, he blew a kiss to his fans.
The true Earnhardt believer will tell you that the kiss kept on floating—up and up, all the way to the heavens.