It was an emotional return to Daytona International Speedway for the entire sport of NASCAR, but especially for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
July 7, 2001 was the first NASCAR Cup Series race to be held at the track since Dale Earnhardt lost his life in the tragic crash in turn 4 on the last lap of the Daytona 500 just six months earlier.
The emotion was still raw, the sport still shocked, and the wounds still healing.
It was clear who the fan-favorite was that night: The Intimidator’s son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who carried on the legacy of his father for the legions of Earnhardt fans still reeling from the loss of their driver.
And in an ending straight out of a Hollywood movie, it was Dale Earnhardt Jr. who wheeled his #8 Budweiser Chevy, owned by the team bearing his father’s name, into Victory Lane.
A Storybook Ending
Junior qualified 13th for the 2001 Pepsi 400, but quickly found his way to the front of the field – and for most of the night, it was clear that he was a man on a mission.
His Budweiser Chevy led the field for 116 of the 160 laps, and Junior took the white flag with his teammate and 2001 Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip in his rearview mirror.
With the entire crowd on their feet and cheering as he made his final lap, and his teammate blocking behind him and pushing his car across the finish line, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the checkered flag for a fairytale ending to the nightmare that the sport had been living for the past 6 months.
Then, in one of the most emotional victory celebrations in the history of the sport, Junior parked his car in the infield grass and was immediately surrounded, not only by his own team, but by his dad’s team members too.
Michael Waltrip, who had never been able to properly celebrate his Daytona 500 win after Earnhardt’s death, also parked his car in the infield beside Junior, and the two shared an emotional hug on the top of their cars as fans celebrated in the stands.