February 15, 2004 -
It took his father 20 attempts to win the big one. Dale Earnhardt Jr. snared the Daytona 500, NASCAR's most celebrated race, in his fifth try.
Racing three years to the week after Dale Sr. was killed in a last-lap crash at the 500, the 29-year-old made a decisive move reminiscent of his legendary namesake. His No. 8 Chevy swooped inside of Tony Stewart on the 181st of 200 laps at Daytona International Speedway, passed the lead car and sped away to victory.
"He was over in the passenger side with me," Earnhardt said of his dad as he celebrated in Victory Lane. "I'm sure he was having a blast."
The race drew 180,000 fans, including President Bush, who gave Dale Jr. a congratulatory call afterward.
The victory marked the sixth-year anniversary of Dale Sr.'s only Daytona 500 victory. "In a way, it feels like I'm closer to my dad," Junior said. "At the same time, this is a reminder of losing him all over again."
Odds 'n' Ends
Earnhardt Jr.'s parents separated when he was three, with the divorce finalized three years later. After the split, he and older sister Kelley lived with their mother, Brenda, until a fire damaged their home in 1981. The two children then moved in with their father.
Junior's paternal grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt, won a NASCAR Sportsman title in 1956 and made NASCAR's top-50 drivers list for its first 50 years.
Robert Gee, his maternal grandfather, was a renowned race car builder.
Junior and half-brother Kerry bought their first race car, a 1979 Monte Carlo, for $500. He didn't meet Kerry until his mid-teens.
Kelley also raced on short tracks before attending college. Junior said she was the "most promising" of the three young drivers but had little cash supporting her.
Dale Jr. received a two-year degree in automotives from Mitchell Community College in North Carolina, and worked at his father's Chevrolet dealership, mostly doing oil changes.
His many music tastes range from country to hard rock. He's been an Elvis Presley fan for years.
When he raced in the mid-1990s at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) Speedway, his car owner was Gary Hargett, a longtime short-track racer and a family friend of the Earnhardts.
In 1996-97, Junior drove a late-model car from his father's shop. He won two races in 1996 and none in 1997.
As he was growing up, he rarely got help with his car from Dale Sr., who wanted his children to learn as much as they could on their own.
After getting one Busch Series ride in 1996 and eight the next year, Junior got a regular seat in the series in 1998, driving for his father's shop. His uncle, Tony Eury Sr., was crew chief, and his cousin, Tony Eury Jr., managed the car's setup.
Junior got his first series win at Texas Motor Speedway and won six more races that season in taking the Busch title. Six wins in 1999 helped deliver another series points championship.
His first victory on NASCAR's major circuit came on April 2, 2000, at the same Texas track.
Dale Sr., Dale Jr. and Kerry all ran in the Pepsi 400 that year, the second time a father had raced against his two sons. (The first trio to do it was Lee, Richard and Maurice Petty). Senior finished sixth, Junior 31st and Kerry 43rd and last.
In 2000, Dale Jr. became the first rookie to win the Winston, NASCAR's all-star exhibition race.
The Earnhardts, father and son, were teammates in Daytona's 24-hour endurance race in February 2001, finishing second in their class and fourth overall.
Junior caused controversy in 2002 when he didn't disclose a concussion for months after being hurt in a crash in April at California Speedway. NASCAR quickly formulated a policy that required all drivers with head injuries to get medical clearance before driving.
By 2004, he had become a staple on magazine covers and had been named to Forbes' Celebrity 100 and People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People. Sports Illustrated estimated he made $15 million annually from appearance fees and endorsements, more than twice what he earned on the track in 2003.
He appeared in a video for singer Sheryl Crow's "Steve McQueen."
He led the points race in 2004 for nine of the first 14 weeks. He fell from second to fifth down the stretch of the Chase, slowed by crashes in two straight races.
Just after the 2004 season, Dale Earnhardt Inc. made a big change, switching Eury Jr., who had squabbled with Dale Jr., from the No. 8 team to Mike Waltrip's No. 15. Pete Rondeau became head of Earnhardt's team.
Earnhardt finished third in the 2005 Daytona 500, but his team struggled after that. Rondeau was fired in the 11th week, replaced by Steve Hmiel. Earnhardt and Eury reconciled later in the season and Eury became crew chief of the No. 8 team with 10 races left.
In 2005, Dale Jr. started JR Motorsports in Mooresville, N.C., and by the next year, the company had its first Busch team in place.