In some ways, the wonder was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. could even bring himself to take the track for the running of the Pepsi 400 at Florida's Daytona International Speedway on July 7. Less than five months earlier, his father, racing legend Dale Earnhardt, had been killed at age 49 in a crash on the very same high-banked racetrack. "I thought about my dad," Dale Jr., 26, conceded. "The first lap or two of practice it felt different, it felt very strange. That was really tough for me." Somehow, though, he left those memories in the same place his father had left so many opponents—eating dust. In a storybook finish, young Dale streaked to victory in the Pepsi 400, mosh-diving afterward into the arms of his pit crew as fans roared their delight.

For months Dale Jr. had been unable to escape the shadow of his father's death. At every stop on the Winston Cup circuit there were signs commemorating the crusty, beloved older Earnhardt, widely regarded as perhaps the greatest natural driver in stock-car history. And at each race, since Earnhardt Sr.'s car had been No. 3, fans and broadcasters would stand in silent tribute during the third lap. At Daytona the weight of the past would be felt even more keenly, and Earnhardt's widow, Teresa, 42, stayed away from the Pepsi race entirely.

Dale Jr. coped in his own fashion, triumphing with the same daring that was the hallmark of his father. Stuck behind five cars with six laps to go, he radioed his crew, "I wanna win this one pretty bad"—then proceeded to weave heart-stoppingly in and out of traffic to take the checkered flag. "I felt like I was rescued from a deserted island," Dale Jr. told PEOPLE, explaining that the victory eased the loneliness he had been feeling. "After that race I was just wide open, wanting to hug everybody. It really got me back to normal."