Driving in a car designed as a homage to his late father, Earnhardt took the lead on Lap 70 of a Nationwide Series race at Daytona and held on to take the checkered flag.
Earnhardt Jr. had to hold off Joey Logano on a green-white-checkered race to the finish after a late caution, one in which the top eight drivers on the grid gambled by not pitting and deciding to race on older tires.
Earnhardt Jr. flew through the finish, then drove his celebratory victory lap with his hand out the window waving at fans. It was Earnhardt Jr.'s first win in the Nationwide Series since 2006 at Michigan and was his eighth at Daytona. Earnhardt Jr. has won six Nationwide/Busch races at Daytona as well as two Cup races.
Dale Earnhardt Sr. died soon after crashing on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 after driving aggressively to help block for Earnhardt Jr. and eventual winner Michael Waltrip.
Earnhardt Jr. was driving a car with his father's No. 3 on it for only the third time since his death – all three in NASCAR's secondary series. Junior has won two of those three races; both came at Daytona.
“We lost everything here,'' crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said through tears after the race. “To win here with his number...”
"I feel lucky, real, real lucky to win. If I didn't win, what a waste of time,'' Earnhardt said on Victory Lane. "I did it for Daddy, proud of him for going into the Hall of Fame. This is for his fans. I hope they enjoyed it. No more 3 for me. We won. That's it.''
On Thursday, Earnhardt Jr. told the Daytona Beach News-Journal that Friday's race would likely be the last time he drove a car with his father's famous number on it, and he reiterated those comments on ESPN on Friday.
Earnhardt Jr. drove a Chevy not only with his dad's number, but the Impala sported the familiar blue and yellow color scheme complete with Wrangler sponsorship – Wrangler was Earnhardt Sr.'s primary sponsor from 1981-87. Earnhardt Jr. even wore a firesuit reminiscent to the style his father wore in the early 1980s.
Earnhardt Jr. said the car's retro look was to honor his father's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, but it also created a rush on souvenir trucks as the blue-and-yellow themed gear was pretty much everywhere on the race grounds.
After Friday's win, they might just sell out as the crowds grow for Saturday's Cup race. Earnhardt Jr. will return to his normal sponsors and No. 88 for the Coke Zero 400.
And even though Earnhardt Jr. said he was “99 percent” sure he wouldn't roll out the No. 3 again, even his peers sounded like they hoped he might have a change of heart.
“I think it's an awesome sight,'' Mark Martin said on Thursday. “I know that a lot of our fans weren't around during that era, but a lot of them were, too. For all the ones who were, they get it. It's good to see Junior in it and it's good to see it happening.''
Said Kurt Busch: “You look at it and go 'that's cool'.''
CHANGE FOR CHASE?
NASCAR chairman Brian France said Friday that the Chase to the Championship could be changed next year.
“We want to make sure it's giving us the biggest impact moments that it's supposed to,'' France said. “We're happy with the Chase. It just means if we can enhance it in a pretty significant way we may do that. That will be the thing we decide in the coming months.''
Four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson said Friday that he's talked to NASCAR about potential changes and he says some of them are pretty radical. The Sprint Cup Series champion is crowded following the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“From my conversations with them, they are very serious about making some changes,'' Johnson said. “I don't know what exactly because we've talked about minor changes all the way up to some very extreme options they are considering. I know their number one goal is to make it entertaining and exciting.''