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Dale Earnhardt Jr. finds victory lane at Daytona 500 after long absence

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates Victory Lane after winning NASCAR Dayton500 Sprint Cup series aurace DaytonInternational Speedway DaytonBeach Fla. Sunday Feb.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Terry Renna)

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.— Kelley Earnhardt Miller couldn’t bear to watch the last lap of the Daytona 500.

After so many heartbreaks and close calls for her brother, Dale Earnhardt Jr., she lowered her head and told her husband, L.W., to let her know what happened.

“I just didn’t want him to be second again, you know?” Earnhardt Miller said.

Amy Reimann, Earnhardt’s girlfriend, was nervous to the point of nausea. She kept jumping up and down for the final three laps, hoping somehow this race would be different.

“On a (nervous) scale of 1-10, I was about a 20,” Reimann told USA TODAY Sports.

Up on the spotters’ stand, T.J. Majors kept talking and talking, giving his driver all the information necessary to stay out front. Then the No. 88 car came off Turn 4 with a big lead, and it hit him: They were going to win the Daytona 500.

“I was like, ‘We just won,’ “ he said. “Holy cow, man!”

The next few minutes were a blur. The crowd roared as if cheering at an NFL home game. Earnhardt’s crew danced down pit road as team owner Rick Hendrick watched Earnhardt slowly drive around the track, waving the checkered flag at frenzied fans. Hendrick then met Earnhardt on pit road and climbed halfway into the driver’s side window for a ride toward victory lane.

Once the car reached the sacred ground of the Daytona winner’s circle, there was confetti and champagne and lots of hugs—“ mostly from Earnhardt, who embraced everyone in sight. The 39-year-old couldn’t stop smiling like a little boy on Christmas day — even when he failed to lift the unwieldy Harley J. Earl trophy over his head (the No. 88 crew propped it up from behind as he struggled).

The wild scene was a far cry from the six-hour rain delay, when a subdued Earnhardt and those closest to him waited for the race to restart inside the driver’s motorhome. Reimann, Miller and others played Crazy Eights with a deck of Dale Jr. playing cards, Miller said; Earnhardt buried his head in an iPad and wondered aloud why someone put his dog’s water bowl up on the countertop instead of the floor, she added.

That laid-back environment fit in with the rest of the week, which felt different all along to Majors. He found his friend to have a more relaxed mindset than previous Daytona Speedweeks; the spotter told USA TODAY Sports that Earnhardt was so calm, he even spent time walking his dog around Lake Lloyd in the track’s infield.

Maybe it was a quiet confidence born out of the close calls in the last two Daytona 500s, when Earnhardt finished second. In those races, he never had enough of a run off the final corner; this time, he was leading.

“That’s what you dream of — coming out of 4 and knowing the guy can’t get a run in your mirror,” Majors said. “It was like, ‘We’re going to win this race. This is it. We’re going to win the Daytona 500.’ “

On pit road, L.W. Miller started yelling, “He won! He won!” Wife Kelley’s eyes filled with tears of joy for both her brother and her family.

After all, this had been the Speedweeks which was dominated by talk of the No. 3 car — made famous by her late father — returning to the Cup Series for the first time since 2001, when Earnhardt Sr. died in a last-lap crash here.

While she said most of the family was “honestly pretty supportive” of the 3’s return with Austin Dillon, Earnhardt Miller also said they were “tired of hearing about that.”

“I just think it adds to our family heritage for Dale to pick up this win,” she said. “It gives us something else to talk about besides the 3 being on the racetrack.”

Reimann, wearing a black Chevrolet victory lane hat over her blond hair, called Earnhardt’s Daytona 500 victory “the biggest win of his career.”

“He’s just come so far that it just means more to him now,” she said. “He’s worked really hard for this and waited a long time for this to happen again.

“It’s just a lot of pressure for him (to win), so this is extremely exciting. He feels like it’s not real.”

Roughly 30 minutes after the checkered flag waved, Majors had finally stopped shaking. But he still seemed in disbelief as he spoke.

“It’s just kind of like, ‘That just happened,’ “ he said. “Like, wow. I still don’t believe it, man. We just won the Daytona 500, dude! That’s like the Super Bowl for our sport. And we just won it! It’s been a long time coming. It’s surreal, man. I can’t believe it.”

Majors paused. He smiled.

“Dude, there is no reason why we can’t win the next 10 races in a row right now,” he said. “He’s really good, and when he gets it in his head that he’s good? He’s dangerous.”



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