DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- All hailed the commander-in-chief at the start of yesterday's Daytona 500 when President George W. Bush gave the command, "Gentlemen, start your engines!"
By the end of the Great American Race, though, all hailed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the commander of restrictor-plate racing. Even Bush acknowledged as much when he interrupted Earnhardt's postrace news conference with a congratulatory call.
On the sixth anniversary of his late father's one and only victory in this prestigious stock car race, Earnhardt made it to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway in his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet, claiming his first Daytona 500 triumph.
"Yeah, it was the most exciting ride of my life," Earnhardt said as the media eavesdropped on his short cellphone conversation with the president. "Yes, sir, I was glad to see you today. Thank you very much, take it easy."
It ranked as the most precious unscripted moment of Earnhardt's most precious of his six overall restrictor-plate victories for the dominant team his father built, Dale Earnhardt Inc., winners of 10 of the last 13 restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega.
"It's a tribute to what Dale started," said DEI owner Teresa Earnhardt, widow of the seven-time NASCAR champion. "It's a tribute to everybody."
As he rounded the final turn of yesterday's 200-lap race, Earnhardt could not help but feel the presence of the father he lost in that same corner in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. That was a race in which Michael Waltrip's first career triumph -- a 1-2 finish over DEI teammate Dale Jr. that snapped Waltrip's 463-race drought -- was tragically trumped by their mentor's death.
Yesterday, though, Earnhardt said his father "was over in the passenger side riding right with me. I'm sure he was having a blast."
While his father struggled to win his first Daytona 500 after 19 attempts, Earnhardt Jr. captured his first in his fifth career 500 start in Nextel's inaugural race as NASCAR's title sponsor of its premier racing series.
"It's a hard race to win. It's a season in itself, that entire race, because there's so many things going on, and so many things going through your mind," said Earnhardt, who pocketed a record $1,495,070 after joining his late father as the third father-son winners in Daytona history. Lee and Richard Petty were the first, followed by Bobby and Davey Allison.
"The things that have happened, I'll tell you, I've seen it lost so many times, over and over, by my dad here, that I was taught so many lessons by this place before I ever got behind the wheel," Earnhardt said. "But I'm glad I don't got to worry about it anymore."
Earnhardt made his big move with 19 laps to go when he executed a zigzag on runner-up Tony Stewart in Turn 3. After Stewart took the lead from rookie driver Scott Wimmer (who finished third) on Lap 176, Earnhardt waited until Lap 181 to go to the front by inducing Stewart to block his outside move before passing him on the inside on the bottom groove.
"Dale Jr. was the class of the field all week," said Stewart, who led the most laps yesterday (97), finished runner-up to Earnhardt in their qualifying heat in Thursday's Gatorade Twin 125s, and pushed Earnhardt to three of his four restrictor-plate victories at Talladega.
"For some reason, everybody all day tried to separate Dale Earnhardt Jr. and I," he said. "Our plan was to get together and run together. We knew if we could get together, people were going to have a hard time with us all day. That was true the whole race."
Until Earnhardt decided to make his move on Stewart.
"When I saw him moving around, I knew it was coming," Stewart said. "I knew it was going to be a matter of time before he pulled the pin. And he pulled it."
Earnhardt did it, too, without any drafting support from teammate Waltrip, who climbed unhurt from the twisted wreckage of his car that violently barrel-rolled down the backstretch after it was involved a 12-car melee on Lap 72. Waltrip, winner of two of the three previous Daytona 500s, finished 38th.
"When he decided to go, he just went," Stewart said. "Normally, I wouldn't be happy to finish second. But I'm just flat tickled to death." And for good reason.
"Considering what this kid went through in losing his father here at the Daytona 500, and knowing how good he's been here and just something happened, it's nice to see him get his victory here, too," Stewart said. "I think his father's really proud today. You know, I'd love to have won the race, trust me. I did everything I could to still win the race. If I could have held him off, had him finish second, I would have done it in a heartbeat.
"But there was no holding that kid back today. Today was his day."
All hail to the chief.