Pepsi 400: Earnhardt Jr closes the book

Most of the talk in the lead up to Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at Daytona wasn't about what was going to happen, but about what had happened back in February's Daytona 500. Big questions remain unanswered over the death of seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champ Dale Earnhardt, but it was a book closing of sorts when his son Dale Jr pulled off a dominant win at a track his dad had almost made his own

Pepsi 400: Earnhardt Jr closes the book

Some questioned the validity of the victory, raced for under the lights of the 2.5-mile Florida tri-oval, but there were few doubts over its conclusiveness. 'Little E' qualified 13th in his Dale Earnhardt Inc Chevrolet Monte Carlo, took over the lead on lap 27 out of 160, then dominated the final two thirds of the race, bar the briefest of interludes caused by cautions and pit stops.

Such was Jr's control of the race that he led 88 out of a possible 89 laps between the 57 and 145-lap marks, and in the end, a multi-car shunt on lap 142 came closest to spoiling the Earnhardt family's cathartic evening. Rookie Kurt Busch triggered off the crash, which also included pole-sitter Sterling Marlin, danger man Mike Skinner, points-leader Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt Sr's replacement Kevin Harvick.

The ensuing 'splash and dashes' put Earnhardt fifth with six laps to go, but he soon disposed of Tony Stewart, Jeremy Mayfield and temporary leader Johnny Benson. Behind Jr, his DEI team mate Michael Waltrip almost reprised his '500-winning role by drafting into second at the chequered flag, courtesy of hooking up with Elliott Sadler, but stayed back to play tail-gunner for the winner.

Afterwards - publicly at least - Earnhardt chose to play down the significance of his win, but did allude to a higher presence in the cockpit of his Chevy.

"I had a great car - I was just holding on," he said. "He was with me tonight. I don't know how I did it. And Michael helped me, we're even now.

"I didn't have any moments that were really any different," he added. "The very first lap I made around the race track felt different. It was kind of tough. After the first practice and qualifying run, it was just like always after that. I really didn't think much about what happened here in February. When we started the race today, I was more nervous about how good my car was than anything else. I just kept my mind pretty clear."

After qualifying in the top four slots, the Dodge challenge failed to materialise, with the fourth-placed Ward Burton the best of the Intrepids.

It was also a bad night for points-leader Gordon, who was classified a lowly 37th after the Busch-triggered accident. That allowed a 12th-placed Dale Jarrett to close the gap at the head of the title race.

Tony Stewart also had an evening to forget after crossing the yellow line on the track apron and being relegated down to the end of the lead lap, 26th overall. Naturally, the volatile Indiana-born driver was not happy with NASCAR's strict enforcement of the rules, fuming before lapsing into silence.

With the most anticipated race of the season - for bad, rather than good reasons - out of the way with relatively little incident, the Winston Cup circus can now release its collective breath and hunker down to the task of racing every single weekend for the next 20.

NASCAR Winston Cup, Daytona - Pepsi 400


Dale Earnhardt Jr, Chevrolet, 160 laps
Michael Waltrip, Chevrolet, +0.175s
Elliott Sadler, Ford, +0.382s
Ward Burton, Dodge, +0.506s
Bobby Labonte, Pontiac, +0.552s
Jerry Nadeau, Chevrolet, +0.658s
Rusty Wallace, Ford, +0.668s
Jeff Burton, Ford, +0.730s
Brett Bodine, Ford, +0.804s
Mike Wallace, Ford, +0.839s
Todd Bodine, Ford, +0.948s
Dale Jarrett, Ford, +1.004s
Johnny Benson, Pontiac, +1.031s
Ricky Rudd, Ford, +1.111s
Ken Schrader, Pontiac, +1.123s
Matt Kenseth, Ford, +1.239s
Jeremy Mayfield, Ford, +1.497s
Mark Martin, Ford, +1.517s
Jimmy Spencer, Ford, +1.640s
Steve Park, Chevrolet, +1.657s
Dave Blaney, Dodge, +2.092s
John Andretti, Dodge, +2.135s
Robert Pressley, Ford, +2.462s
Jason Leffler, Dodge, +4.508s
Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, +15.060s
Tony Stewart, Pontiac, +15.061s (includes penalty)
Joe Nemechek, Chevrolet, 159 laps
Casey Atwood, Dodge, 159
Kyle Petty, Dodge, 159
Kurt Busch, Ford, 159
Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 158
Stacy Compton, Dodge, 158
Ricky Craven, Ford, 158
Rick Mast, Chevrolet, 158
Bill Elliott, Dodge, 158
Dave Marcis, Chevrolet, 158
Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 157
Bobby Hamilton, Chevrolet, 145
Sterling Marlin, Dodge, 144
Terry Labonte, Chevrolet, 142
Mike Skinner, Chevrolet, 141
Jeff Purvis, Ford, 89
Andy Houston, Ford, 86

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