Joy to the Junior world

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- A decade of heartbreak was deluged, swept away, obliterated, in torrents of elation for Dale Earnhardt Jr. He simply couldn't contain himself, and nobody would have wanted or expected him to.

A decade after his first one, he finally got his second Daytona 500 win Sunday night.

"I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to feel that again," he admitted in Victory Lane. "And it feels just as great if not better than the first, because of how hard we tried, year after year after year, running second all them years ... "

"If there was a guy who was due, it was the guy who's finished second three of the last four years," said Brad Keselowski, who gave Earnhardt the strongest challenge late, but wound up third.

"I can't believe this is happening," Earnhardt said -- drivers often say such things, but he clearly meant it from deep inside. "I'll never take it for granted."

Oh, and by the way, there'll be no need for Junior Nation to ask for months whether he'll make the Chase this year. He's as good as in already.

"We don't have to worry about it," he said of NASCAR's playoffs. "If everybody is telling the truth [under new rules] we've won a race, so we should be in it."

Now, any win virtually guarantees a playoff berth. Only if there are more than 16 winners this season -- highly unlikely -- could he possibly be shut out.

So, "We can get that off our chest, and we're two-time Daytona 500 champions," he said, as if trying to convince himself more than anyone who was listening.

Then he issued what sounded pretty close to a promise to the legions of fans who have hung with him.

"We're making things happen," he said. "Trust me, man, we're gonna have a blast this year."

More than an hour later, the elation hadn't dissipated -- if anything, it had escalated.

"We're going for the jugular this year," he said. "We're turning the corner at the right time."

His crew chief, Steve Letarte, is leaving after this season for a television job in 2015, and there had been some speculation about lame-duck implications for this year.

"I've got one more year with this guy, and we're going to make it something special," Earnhardt said.

This was his first Cup win since June 17, 2012, and detractors called that one at Michigan a fluke, a fuel-mileage win.

This win was no fluke. Earnhardt clearly had the strongest car for hours upon hours -- the race started in the afternoon, then went into more than six hours of rain delay, then went nighttime, and the 88 was at or near the front throughout.

"We showed 'em all night long how good a car we had," he said. "This thing would do anything. We could fight off battles after battles."

The later it got the stronger he got, holding off various challengers, including Keselowski's run on the next-to-last lap.

Then on the final lap, Earnhardt denied Denny Hamlin what would have been an unprecedented Speedweeks sweep of Cup races. Hamlin, who finished second, became the 13th driver to win all preliminary Cup events and then fall short in the 500 itself. Earnhardt himself had been there twice.

What appeared to be more bad Earnhardt luck, late, turned out fortuitous for him. A piece of bodywork tape off another car was stuck to his grill for the final restart with two laps to go.

But there wasn't enough time left to cause overheating, and if anything, the tape made his car even stronger by nailing down the front end even better aerodynamically.

And this year's bad luck fell to Hamlin, who had to run to the end without radio contact with his spotter.

"Our radios got wet after the rain," Hamlin said. "I was trying to spot for myself at the end of the race. It's hard to win a superspeedway [restrictor-plate] race when you don't know when runs are coming, when you have to time your passes ... when you're trying to guard against causing a wreck, knowing you've got radio silence."

Hamlin had won the Sprint Unlimited bonus race here eight days ago, and then won his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday night.

But, "I think our performance declined a little bit as Speedweeks went on by," Hamlin said. "I think the competition got a little bit better and worked on their cars [during practices after Thursday]."

"That car I drove tonight -- we got along," Earnhardt said.

And now, "Monday will be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation," he acknowledged.

Said his team owner, Rick Hendrick, "It doesn't hurt to have the most popular driver win the biggest race in the sport."

How much weight came off Earnhardt's shoulders?

"It's not a weight when you're able to deliver," he said. "It's a weight when you're not able to deliver -- when people say you're the face of the sport and you're running fifth or 10th every week ... "

"And so," he said, "this brings me a lot of joy."

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