DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It had been 85 points races since Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it to Victory Lane.
The end of the drought finally came at Daytona International Speedway, in the famed No. 3 car, in race that honored his late father and stirred emotions to even the most stoic NASCAR fan.
Earnhardt raced to his first victory since 2008 on Friday night, driving a tribute car to his father in the Nationwide Series race. It was Earnhardt's first points win since his Sprint Cup Series victory at Michigan in 2008, and his first Nationwide win since Michigan in 2006.
His celebration was subdued.
"I was just relieved," he said. "Victory Lane's like when you're a little kid and you've got a tree house or you and your buddies got a clubhouse in the woods. That's what Victory Lane is to me, and I like going there. You miss it really bad, but you know it's there and you can get back there again if you try really hard.
"It's not gone, but it's very difficult to get into. Every time I win, I just soak it up like a sponge."
Earnhardt took the lead on pit road under caution with 26 laps to go Friday night in the Nationwide race. Running a No. 3 Chevrolet with a Wrangler paint scheme to honor his father's induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Earnhardt brought his loyal fans to their feet for the final sprint to the checkered flag.
"I was so worried that I wasn't going to win, because nothing but winning was good enough," Earnhardt said. "If you didn't win, what a waste of time. I worked hard to try to win it, not only for Daddy, I am proud of him going into the Hall of Fame, and he would be proud of this, I'm sure.
"Just all his fans. He had so many great fans. Not just mine. This is for his fans. Hopefully, they enjoyed this."
Paul Menard's wreck with four laps to go put the outcome in jeopardy, and Earnhardt, the leader, decided not to pit under the caution. On old tires, he had to hold off Joey Logano and a slew of Cup regulars.
Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin and crew chief, was overcome with emotion as Earnhardt crossed the finish line.
"We lost everything here," Eury said softly. "To come back with that number and do this, it means everything."
Dale Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap accident in the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt Jr. agreed to drive the No. 3, his father's famed number, with the Wrangler paint scheme that the elder Earnhardt made famous and drove to one of his seven Cup championships. The promotion celebrated last month's inaugural Hall of Fame induction ceremony and was a collaboration with Richard Childress, who owns the rights to the No. 3 and was Earnhardt's car owner, Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, and JR Motorsports.
"I was so worried that I wasn't going to win," Earnhardt said in Victory Lane. "Nothing but a win was good enough. It's emotional, I'm proud of myself, I'm proud of what I've done with this group. It was trying emotionally to put it together."
It was Earnhardt's third time driving the No. 3 since his father's death, and he said this week he wouldn't do it again -- which he reiterated from Victory Lane.
"This is it. No more 3 for me," he said.
Logano, who pushed Earnhardt on the final restart, finished second in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and considered in the closing laps how unpopular beating Earnhardt would have been.
"I probably gained a lot of fans tonight by pushing the 3 to victory, but I'd much rather be in Victory Lane," Logano said. "It's cool to see the 3 in Victory Lane at Daytona. It's really neat. A lot of people thought they would never see that again."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was third in a Ford for Roush-Fenway Racing. Brad Keselowski was fourth in a revamped Dodge Challenger for Penske Racing, while Kevin Harvick -- the driver who replaced Earnhardt following his death -- was fifth in a Chevrolet from Kevin Harvick Inc.
The race was the first of four this season for revamped Nationwide Series cars -- NASCAR's attempt to give the second-tier series its own identity. Ford brought back the Mustang and Dodge rolled out a Challenger, while Toyota stuck with its Camry and Chevrolet an Impala. The cars will be fully integrated in 2011.