DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - A lot of things went through Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s head as shadows moved across Daytona International Speedway and he was leading Tony Stewart through the final turns on the last lap of yesterday's Daytona 500.
The memories were welling up.
His dad, the late seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, had lost this race in the final moments time and again over 20 years before finally winning it in 1998. And in 2001, he had lost his life on the 500's last lap.
"I know Dad was over in the passenger side right with me," Earnhardt Jr. said after he won the 46th edition of the race on his fifth try. "I'm sure he was having a wonderful time."
Earnhardt made a fantastic, self-propelled pass for the lead in his No. 8 Chevrolet with 19 laps to go and then held off his friend Stewart, who was also driving a Chevrolet, to win the race by .273 of a second.
"Dale Jr. should be proud of himself," Stewart said. "He didn't win in a race where everyone was just pushing their cars around, and he didn't win because he got lucky. Today, you had to drive your racecar, and he out-drove all of us and beat us - and that's why I'm tickled to death to finish second."
Instead of driving directly to victory lane, Earnhardt, who averaged 156.345 mph and won $1,495,070, drove his red and white car back to the start-finish line and climbed out of the window. He waved at 200,000 delirious fans in the sold-out grandstands and managed to pull himself the rest of the way out of the car just before being swarmed by his crew and members of several other teams who ran across the grass on the front stretch to celebrate with him.
Earnhardt, 29, eventually pulled himself away to face the crowd once more. He shouted at the fans, waved and punched his fists toward the sky in unreserved joy.
"I just wanted a few minutes to share with the fans and to hug the necks of [crew chief Tony Eury Sr. and his son, Tony Jr.] before going to victory lane," Earnhardt said. "It just meant so much to me to do all that. I'd just won the greatest race, and this is the greatest day of my life."
The victory marked the third time in the history of the race that father and son have won the Daytona 500. Lee and Richard Petty led the way, followed by Bobby and Davey Allison and now the Earnhardts.
For Earnhardt, the meaning of this victory was magnified by history. Some of the sport's most successful drivers have never won the Daytona 500. His father, who won more races on Daytona's 2.5-mile oval than anyone else (34), needed 20 years to win the 500 once in a career that included 76 total Winston Cup race victories.
When the elder Earnhardt won here in 1998, it was a glorious day. Earnhardt, who would never admit to any sentiment at the racetrack, said, "My eyes watered up." Fans stayed for hours after the victory to celebrate, at one point forming the number of his racecar, No. 3, on the front-stretch grass, and he turned from an interview 10 stories above them to view their act of devotion with amazement and an appreciative wave.
Yesterday, his son kept his emotions under control for the most part. His crew chief, Eury Sr., choked up when talking about this victory, but Earnhardt revealed his emotions only in the reminiscences he chose to share.
"I think seeing my dad lose this race so many ways - blown tire on the last lap, flipping on the straightaway, a bird flying into his grill - year after year, it ate away at him, ate his insides up," Earnhardt said. "You could see it on his face, and he didn't show much. Sometimes, he'd run screaming from the house. All of that ate at me and started a desire to win this race in me.
"In the last four years, I've pushed Michael [Waltrip] to the first win, pushed Michael to the win the 400 here ... every time knowing we had the best car. ...
"I think seeing my dad lose it so many times and losing it the last four years, you couldn't beat that sore anymore. I don't know how to explain it."
Earnhardt was interrupted during his post-race interview by a phone call from President Bush, who had been present for the first half of the race. Earnhardt told Bush: "It was the most exciting ride of my life."
After hanging up, Earnhardt went on: "I'll be honest with you, this is more important to me than anything. ... I ain't ashamed to say that."
The victory gives Earnhardt the early lead in the new NASCAR Nextel Cup points standings. He leads Stewart 185-180.
"It's the first time I've ever led the points race," Earnhardt said, almost glowing. "Now that I've won the Daytona 500, maybe I can focus on just winning the title."
The victory came yesterday thanks in large part to a strong car that did what few others could do. While many drivers struggled to handle unruly cars, Earnhardt maneuvered his Chevrolet into position behind Stewart on Lap 181 and going through turns 3 and 4, without drafting help from anyone, he drove under Stewart and into the lead.
"I can't believe I passed Tony all by myself," Earnhardt said. "I didn't know if I could get by him by myself, but I had a head of steam and eased up to him ... drafted off the side of his car and drove down into Turn 3.
"The run I had and the bend of that corner, me being on the shorter side of the racetrack, cleared me of him in the middle of that corner. After that, I just started counting down the laps one at a time."
Earnhardt's victory was popular up and down pit road. Stewart spoke for many when he said: "Considering what that kid went through, losing his father here at the Daytona 500 and knowing how good he's been here and just something's happened, it's nice to see him get this victory. I think his father's really proud today."