Dale Earnhardt Jr swept to an emotional and tremendously popular victory in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 at the Daytona International Speedway after dominating much of the race before surviving two late race cautions and getting pushed across the line by Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip.

It couldn't have worked out better if they had planned it, Dale Earnhardt Jr winning the first race at Daytona since the tragic death of his father in February's Daytona 500 with Michael Waltrip acting as a rear gunner on the final lap to secure a second DEI 1-2 at Daytona this year.

In February it was Earnhardt Jr who chased Waltrip around the final lap as the immensely likable veteran won his first ever Winston Cup event and on this occasion the positions were reversed as 'Little E' attempted to hold off a pack of more than 20 cars heading into lap 160 after a typically frantic restrictor plate battle.

A weekend that started under a cloud for NASCAR certainly ended with everyone, and I mean everyone, going home happy as this was the result that both the fans and drivers alike really wanted to see as the 2001 NASCAR Winston Cup season closed the book on a grief stricken opening half of the year and looked ahead to beginning the second half of the season on a high note at the brand new Chicagoland Speedway next week.

In the midst of the emotional celebrations that took place on the grass opposite the start/finish line rather than in Victory Lane with Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr standing atop their cars embracing with the entire DEI and Richard Childress operations surrounding them in a truly memorable moment in Winston Cup history, Waltrip summed up the result perfectly by saying, "That was the way it was supposed to be."

Elliott Sadler finished a superb third ahead of Ward Burton and Bobby Labonte, who played a canny game of racing chess until the final 20 laps where good fortune smiled on him when he made his final stop under green only to watch the caution flag fly on lap 140 when Kurt Busch tapped the pitting Mike Skinner triggering off a chain reaction which eliminated several cars including Skinner and Sterling Marlin who both had a good shot at victory.

With Daytona being such a long track, Labonte had remained on the lead lap during his pit-stop and was elevated from 35th before his stop to sixth on the lap 149 re-start and he almost took the lead from Earnhardt Jr with two laps to go but eventually settled for fifth, a fraction over half a second behind the No.8 Budweiser Chevrolet at the flag.

Tony Stewart crossed the line in sixth spot but he will have to wait until NASCAR have adjudicated over him going out of bounds across the start/finish straight in the closing laps as he attempted an ambitious four wide move for second. Jerry Nadeau, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton and Brett Bodine rounded out the top ten.

Jeff Gordon looked poised to challenge for victory until he got caught up in the lap 140 accident, in which everyone was unhurt, and then fractured an oil-line which caused the third and final caution period of the day on lap 150. He eventually finished 37th although still retains his points lead over Dale Jarrett who came home 13th.

Full report to follow.


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