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Little E's day in the sun

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – They jumped and stomped and screamed toward the heavens here as the No. 8 Budweiser car blasted around turn four, scene of the worst moment in family history, toward the checkered flag.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Daytona 500 Sunday, six years to the day after his father, after 20 frustrating attempts, finally won his and three years after Dale Sr. died in a tragic final-lap crash that rocked this sport, this family, this fan base.

Which is why no matter whose colors the 200,000-plus here on this perfect, sun-splashed day were rooting for during the first 199 laps, during the final one it was near unanimous.

Everyone was pulling for Junior.

"I'm Daytona 500 champion. I can't believe it," he shouted.

Believe it Junior. Your day in the sun has finally come.

"I'm happy as hell to win," said Earnhardt, who passed Tony Stewart with 19 laps to go and ran away with the Great American Race. "This has to be the greatest day of my life."

That it would happen three years after the worst day made it that much more special. The death of the beloved Earnhardt Sr. shook this sport to its core and still affects his son in almost every way possible. While Junior won the very next NASCAR race at the track, that July's Pepsi 400 in an emotional moment, this is the Daytona 500.

This is bigger. This is everything.

It took Dale Sr. 20 attempts before he finally won here 1998, one of the most memorable moments in NASCAR history. It wound up taking Junior just five attempts, and he's certain he wasn't alone in his Chevy.

"He was right in the passenger side right with me. I am sure he was having a blast," Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt, 29, is the sport's most popular driver, in part because of his dad, in part because of his own winning personality. While Senior was The Intimidator, driving a menacing black car, Junior is the poster child of racing cool.

Here at the start of a new era in the sport – new sponsor, new point system, new schedule – NASCAR couldn't have ordered up a better winner. His name and blue-collar driving style link him to the sport's great past. But his Hollywood personality speaks to its future.

If there were one driver who could both sit down with President Bush and party with Ben Affleck – both of whom were here on Sunday – it is Junior. In victory lane he was taking long pulls of Bud but didn't forget to say hello to "mama back home."

You can't look into the infield sky here without seeing multiple No. 8 flags flapping, usually right next to a No. 3 in honor of his dad.

Stewart dominated the middle part of this race, but Earnhardt, who had the strongest car all week, was able to make a run at him on lap 181 and pass his buddy without any help. He chased down glory the rest of the way and won comfortably.

No one better understands how special this race is, how coveted this feeling is. Earnhardt grew up watching his father capture seven Winston Cup titles and win 34 times in other races on this very track but fall short in every way imaginable way in the 500.

"I've seen it lost so many times by my dad," Earnhardt said. "I was taught so many lessons about this place before I ever got behind the wheel."

As much as the memory of Dale Sr. still hovers over this place, the emotion Sunday was jubilation. The tears that streaked some crew members' cheeks were of joy. For his part, Earnhardt looked ready to tear it up at some Atlantic Ave. clubs Sunday night, the way drivers used to (before everything got so corporate) celebrate a win here by hitting the beach and hammering down a case or three.

But that's Junior. Old school and new. Like father like son – and now his own man.

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