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

Qualifying: Marlin leads Dodge parade

Previous article

Qualifying: Marlin leads Dodge parade

Next article

Labonte pledges to regain champion form

Labonte pledges to regain champion form
Load comments
How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022 Plus

How NASCAR is gearing up for its "biggest change" in 2022

It’s not just Formula 1 that’s set for upheaval in 2022, as the NASCAR Cup Series adopts its Next Gen cars that will cast any in-built advantages aside and require teams to adopt a totally new way of operating. Far more than just a change of machinery, the new cars amount to a shift in NASCAR's core philosophy

Oct 12, 2021
Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR Plus

Why Bubba Wallace’s Talladega win is such a big moment for NASCAR

Bubba Wallace claimed his maiden NASCAR Cup Series at Talladega on Monday to become the first Black victor in the category since Wendell Scott in 1963. Both Wallace and Scott had faced obstacles and racism in their paths to their breakthrough wins, and NASCAR is trying to put it right with its range of diversity programmes

Oct 5, 2021
Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI Plus

Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI

In a career that has had many ups and downs, Kurt Busch has been written off many times before. But facing career uncertainty after the sale of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, the 2004 Cup champion has found a new berth at Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI organisation - which underlines his enduring value

Aug 31, 2021
The F1 nearly-man winding back the clock in NASCAR’s European cousin Plus

The F1 nearly-man winding back the clock in NASCAR’s European cousin

A multiple F3000 race winner, Marc Goossens was on the precipice of making Formula 1 in the 1990s - but a lack of budget left him without a path to the promised land. Turning to an illustrious racing career in sportscars, Goossens left the endurance circuit to try his hand at racing stock cars - and now calls the NASCAR Euro Series home

Jul 1, 2021
Why a British prospect is trying to make it in NASCAR Plus

Why a British prospect is trying to make it in NASCAR

There has never been a full-time British driver in the NASCAR Cup. But Alex Sedgwick, who is rising through the stock car ranks, wants that to change and could be a trailblazer for European talents to reach the top echelons of the NASCAR ladder

Feb 28, 2021
How Earnhardt’s death changed American motorsport Plus

How Earnhardt’s death changed American motorsport

It's 20 years since legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr died at the Daytona 500, but the legacy of his crash continues today through the pioneering safety work done by NASCAR

Feb 18, 2021
The NASCAR subplots to keep an eye on in 2021 Plus

The NASCAR subplots to keep an eye on in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season

Feb 12, 2021
How a second-chance NASCAR ace is rebuilding his career Plus

How a second-chance NASCAR ace is rebuilding his career

From a disgraced NASCAR exile, Kyle Larson has been given a shot at redemption by the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad. Replacing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is no easy billing, but Larson has every intention of repaying the team's faith

Feb 11, 2021