With win, Dale Earnhardt Jr. closes the circle on No. 3, Daytona

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Sometimes, everything works out exactly how it's supposed to.

On a Friday night in Daytona, Dale Earnhardt Jr. closed a circle that had been left open for more than nine years. With half a dozen of NASCAR's best drivers right behind him, with his father's classic Wrangler paint scheme and number 3 on his car, he wheeled past the spot where his father died in a last-lap crash and ran the 3 to victory lane in Daytona once again.

No driver in NASCAR faces a tenth of the pressure of Dale Earnhardt Jr. He carries the name of the most famous man in the sport, a man whose reputation looms like a colossus above everything Junior does. On an average week, Junior faces perpetual reminders of his late father -- and, it must be said, how his own career doesn't measure up.

So you have to tip your cap to the man for taking on the enormous challenge of racing with the Intimidator's own number. Earnhardt wasn't just shouldering the pressure, he was embracing it, understanding exactly what the Intimidator's still-countless legion of fans was expecting out of him.

"Anything less than a win was pointless," he said. "Did we even honor him by bringing it out and finishing fifth?''

The conspiracy theorists will howl; they always do. After all, it's nine years almost to the day when Junior won at Daytona in the very first Cup-level race run there after Earnhardt Sr.'s death. A #3 victory would be a perfect storyline, wouldn't it? Almost too perfect.

Thing is, the facts don't support a conspiracy theory. NASCAR threw a late caution that re-set the field. Junior still had to go through a late restart; there was no guarantee that Kevin Harvick, running right alongside him, or Joey Logano, running right behind him, wouldn't get a better restart.

Could Harvick and Logano, among others, have lain down for Junior? Perhaps, perhaps not. Logano noted that beating Junior on this night would have instantly rocketed him to the top of NASCAR's Most Unpopular Driver list, but added, "it's Daytona, and there's nothing cooler than winning at this track.''

Junior, a keen student of NASCAR history and his place in the sport, knew full well how much this meant to Earnhardt Nation, and he made sure to note how important this evening was to him, as well. "Daytona is a special thing to me, because of my father dying here," he said. "I'm totally a part of this place for the rest of my life.''

He also took a bit of the gravity out of the evening by explaining why he'd started running well again: "I drink beer every Monday and I grew my beard back, and those two things seem to be helping me," he said. "Those two things deserve the most credit.''

On a more serious note, Junior was adamant that he would never run the 3 again, and that's for the best. The 3 belongs to history now, and that's where it should stay for many, many years to come.

In the end, though, it was Tony Eury Jr. -- poor, beleaguered Eury, who'd been mocked as the cause of so many of Earnhardt Jr.'s problems -- who put it all in perfect perspective. On television just moments after the win, he said, "We lost everything here. To come back with that number and do this, it means everything."

He broke down and couldn't say more. He didn't need to.

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