Before Dale Earnhardt Jr. could race again at Daytona International Speedway after his father died there 10 years ago, he had to check the place out, see if he'd be overwhelmed, see if his cold memories there would consume him. The week before NASCAR returned to Daytona for the first time after the 2001 Daytona 500, he took some friends there, in part to show them the place but also to see how he felt. Like a man going ice fishing who isn't sure if the ice is thick enough to hold him, he stepped gingerly onto the grounds. The ice didn't crack. He didn't sink. He felt good. He found he still liked the place.
He didn't stay long. While he stopped by to see if he could handle being there, a security guard kicked him out. Ah, but he didn't care. He didn't need to hang out there, he needed to race there.
A few days later, he did -- and nobody could catch him. After that humble return, he climbed into a blistering fast car and won the 2001 Pepsi 400. Ten years later, it remains one of the most emotionally satisfying wins in NASCAR history.
No one could catch Junior
"After Earnhardt lost his life, everybody was just completely crushed," said Rusty Wallace, who finished seventh in that July race. "And then when his own son went back and won there, it was the shot heard around the world and was just an amazing story."
The story started in the days leading up to the race, as all eyes were on Junior and how he would react upon returning to NASCAR's most famous and important track. He tried to treat it like any other weekend, and that meant having a good time.
"Back then, the schedule was different," he said. "We always had the week off before, which was awesome. Me and my friends would rent a house. We'd take as many people as we could, fill a Suburban, and just have a blast."
Earnhardt and his buddies spent the week lounging on the beach during the day and hitting the clubs at night. When the time for the race came, he was ready. He had a fast car. He had his crew of friends and family. And he had a climb-in, drive-fast, let's-win-this-thing zest that endeared him to legions of fans.
"I thought it was funny that I had a skull-and-crossbones sticker on the dashboard," Earnhardt said. "Budweiser got mad because it symbolizes poison, and it was sitting next to their logo. It was just a decal someone gave to me on pit road. I put it on there and took off before someone told me to take it off. Tony [Eury] Jr. [the team's car chief] came in halfway through the race and told me Budweiser wasn't happy with it. They wanted me to pull it off. I said, 'I can't reach it. It's way too far.' "
Nobody in the race could reach him, either. He led 116 laps of 160; the only thing that threatened to keep him out of Victory Lane was a late caution. Several teams gambled and took two tires, which dropped Earnhardt from the lead to sixth with six laps left.
"I hadn't been behind people, so I didn't know how my car would pass," he said. "I knew how it would lead. But I didn't know how quickly I could get back to the lead, if six laps would be enough. So I was in panic mode when the green came out, trying to make up those spots. The car did a lot of amazing things in those few laps, making passes and runs, everything just fell in place, like it was meant to be."
Junior held the lead coming off of Turn 4 on the last lap. In today's NASCAR, because of the way the draft has changed, leading in Turn 4 would not guarantee a win. But teammate Michael Waltrip was in second place protecting him. And back then, the lead was the place to be coming off of Turn 4.
His win set off a raucous celebration in the stands, in the infield and in Victory Lane, though the latter was delayed.
"I wasn't in any big hurry to go to Victory Lane and do the hat dance," Earnhardt said. "So I pulled into the infield. I knew my team would run out there. Michael came down there, and his team came down there."
'It felt good to feel good'
One of the enduring images from the night is Earnhardt and Waltrip standing on Waltrip's car. When the celebration moved to Victory Lane, Earnhardt was joined by his buddies and NASCAR officials, including NASCAR president Mike Helton, who five months earlier had announced the death of the father of the young man he now found himself celebrating beside.
"It felt good," Helton said. "And it felt good to feel good."
Ten years later, much of the Victory Lane celebration is a blur for Junior. His favorite part of the whole weekend came later that night ... or perhaps it was very early the next morning.
"For whatever reason, we decided not to be in a hurry to get home," he said. "So after the race we were standing around in the bus lot, drinking beers. I wasn't really taking huge stock in everybody who was there. But I knew my friends were there, and there were a couple people from my team, and a couple random bus drivers and whatnot. I had been standing there 10 minutes and I look to my right, and right next to me was Dale Jarrett, drinking a beer. I looked over and said, 'What are you doing here?'
"He said, 'I wouldn't miss this for the world, having a beer with you guys after that race.'
"That was the best part of the whole deal. At that point, I was still real young. You don't know how people perceive you. You don't know what other drivers think about you. For him to join in on the tiny little celebration we had going there, meant a lot to me. It was a hell of a gesture. I really gained a ton of respect for him. I leaned on him a bunch after that the rest of my career. When I needed to know something, he's one of the guys I went to immediately."
Meanwhile, fans poured out of the speedway, amazed at what they had just witnessed.
"It was an incredible turn of events," said Brian France, who at the time was executive vice president of NASCAR and now is its chairman and CEO. "It actually felt like, even though it was impossible to get, a little bit of closure from the tragedy that had just happened. It gave everybody a great feeling, that's for sure. The emotions of the fans leaving that night was one for the ages."
And it wasn't just fans. It is one of the few races in which other competitors have openly admitted they are glad someone else won.
"I was invited on a trip with several owners, and we went on it right after that race, and that was all they talked about," Wallace said. "They were so excited that he had won that race on the track where his father lost his life."
Ten years later
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has changed tremendously since that race. He was a young man finding his way then, still reeling from the public death of his father. He's fully grown now, as a driver, personality and icon of the sport. That win helped him rise to become NASCAR's most popular driver, a title he has held despite titanic struggles in recent seasons. He nearly won the championship in 2004 but has not been a factor since.
He joined Hendrick Motorsports before the 2008 season, but he has won only one points race driving the best cars in the industry, and a fuel-mileage one at that. He has morphed from a driver overflowing with climb-in, drive-fast, let's-win-this-thing zest to one numbed by climb-in, no-chance, this-thing's-slow uncertainty.
But in recent weeks he has shown glimpses of that old Dale Jr. He has run up front, come close to winning a few races and is flashing confidence he hasn't shown in years. A win on Saturday night -- which would end a 109-race winless streak and is a real possibility -- would go a long way toward bringing the old Dale Jr. completely back, or at least as completely back as he's ever going to get.