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
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.
February 23, 2004
"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
"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."
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 gunfight 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 backstretch
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
Six years ago Sunday, the man who had a way of proving you wrong
at anything climbed out of his number 3 Goodwrench 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.
For more motor sports coverage, go to si.com/racing.
"Dale's as talented as any driver out there," says Kenseth.
"Plus, he's driving with more confidence than ever before."
How big was Junior's win to NASCAR fans? Imagine Babe Ruth's
great-grandson leading the Yankees to a world title.