DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. (search), taking a page from the old man, barreled past Tony Stewart (search) and won his first Daytona 500 (search) Sunday on the same track that claimed his father's life three years ago.
Junior showed the impatience of youth, needing only five tries to win the race that bedeviled the senior Earnhardt for 19 years.
"He was over in the passenger side with me," Earnhardt said during a jubilant celebration in Victory Lane. "I'm sure he was having a blast."
The win came six years to the day that Junior's father won his first -- and only -- Daytona 500 on his 20th try.
Three years later, Earnhardt was killed on a last-lap crash in the 500, depriving the sport of a seven-time champion and its most famous driver.
Well, the next generation is in good hands.
Earnhardt Jr., 29, dipped to the inside and went past Stewart with 20 laps remaining.
Stewart tried valiantly to catch up, briefly pulling up beside Earnhardt at one point. But Junior showed his muscle on the backstretch, keeping Stewart in the rearview mirror.
That's where Stewart stayed the rest of the way. Earnhardt pulled away on the final lap, winning by about four car lengths while the crowd of 180,000 -- many of them wearing Junior's colors -- erupted in celebration.
"It's nice to see him get his victory, too," Stewart said. "I think his father is proud today. I wanted to win the race. Trust me, if I could have held him off, I would have.
"But there was no holding that kid back. Today was his day."
Rookie Scott Wimmer held on for a surprising third-place finish.
Earnhardt came back around and stopped his car at the checkered finish line. He pumped his fist and jumped into the arms of his crew, who lifted him on their shoulders for all to see.
President Bush got the day started when he donned a racing jacket and opened the race, NASCAR's most prestigious event.
Bush seemed to relish a chance to see what he called "one of America's great sporting spectacles."
"This is more than an event; it's a way of life for a lot of people, and you can feel excitement when you're here," Bush said.
With down-home roots in North Carolina, NASCAR has developed an estimated 75 million fans, primarily in the South and Midwest. Events regularly draw six-figure crowds and high television ratings.
The Daytona 500 is far from the first race Junior has won -- he has had nine victories in four seasons in NASCAR's top series and won the Busch series in 1998 and 1999 -- but Sunday's was definately the most coveted.
"I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel," Earnhardt said. "I'm glad I don't have to worry about [winning the 500] anymore. That's awesome."