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."