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An Earnhardt is back in Daytona's Victory Lane, wearing number 3

  3 is back, with an Earnhardt at the wheel. For a one-night-stand at Daytona. "And the story ends the way it should." This car is now headed for NASCAR's new Hall of Fame. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   It was a heartwarming moment, for sure. The Earnhardt name, with the number 3, back in victory lane at Daytona.
   Dale Earnhardt Jr. put that Richard Childress Chevy first under the flag in Friday night's Nationwide 250 here, in what Earnhardt insists is the only time he'll ever run the number 3.
   And it was poignant.
   But the race itself was anything but.
   The debut of NASCAR's new Nationwide 'NEXT gen' car was in a rather erratic race.
   And so much for the Pony Car marketing gambit.
   Fords branded their NEXT gen as the Mustang, with more character lines than usual, and Dodge did the same with its muscle car Challenger.
   But Chevy and Toyota went with their standard Impala and Camry branding for their versions.
   "Pony Cars?" Toyota racing boss Lee White said with a grin. "Ponies are nice for pulling carts.....but we race thoroughbreds."
   Well, an impala isn't quite a thoroughbred; it's actually an African antelope.
   But the Impala Earnhardt had here was hard to pass once he got the lead. Toyota's Joey Logano dogged Earnhardt down the stretch Friday but couldn't make a move:  http://bit.ly/ar3oYX  
   So after Dodge's Brad Keselowski and Justin Allgaier took the front row for the start – and prompted Chevy's Kevin Harvick to grumble to Toyota's Kyle Busch "about that Dodge plate," a laughing reference to the horsepower Dodge teams here seems to have – it wound up a Chevy-Toyota finish.

  Daytona fans with the 'three salute'. And is that a Winston cigarette? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Earnhardt called it "a real emotional win.
   "But it was for obviously to honor my father...his fans too."
   "I will never do it...I'll never rethink it...I'll never consider it," Earnhardt said of driving with one of his father's legendary paint schemes. "It's important for everybody to know that that's as concrete as it gets.
    "I'll never do it again."
   First, there was a heck of a lot of pressure on him in this.
   And as poorly as all these cars were handling, there were no guarantees.
   "I was just like 'Damn, I hope we don't leave this racetrack with three torn-up cars and another $600,000 in the hole,'" Earnhardt said.

  Things get a little too hot for Jennifer Jo Cobb in Friday night's 250 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "There's always pressure driving that car, that sponsor," Earnhardt said of the marketing package put together by veteran David Allen, long-time Wrangler whiz. Allen was key in launching the original Childress-Earnhardt venture way back when.
    "To everyone...anything less than a win was pointless," Earnhardt went on. "What did we do this for? Did we even honor him by bringing it out and running fifth?
    "So I felt a lot of pressure to win.
     "I didn't know if we could pull it off. But we were very lucky and very fortunate."
    Afterwards Earnhardt said he could perhaps enjoy the feat.
    But in the days leading up, he conceded "It was hard for me.
   "It's a balancing act  -- between you and the public and me and my own feelings.
    "How the public's feeling...
    "It was real emotional for me preparing for it. Is Rick okay with it? Is Richard happy with his role? Is Teresa truly okay?
    "It's just so damned hard to know how everybody feels about it.
    "Hell, I just want to come race.
    "I just like cool-looking cars....and this was a hell of a cool-looking car.
    "I wanted to race it once...and I did."

   Remember that victory salute, arms raised? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   "I'd run the number before in this series, so I didn't really put a lot of stock in 'the 3 was coming back,' like a lot of people did," Earnhardt said.
    "I didn't approach it that way: where everyone else was thinking 'Earnhardt's 3 is back.'
     "When I started hearing all that, how everybody was making such a big deal about it, I was like 'Man, this is like pressure, man. This is a big deal.'
    "So I was a little nervous."
   And now he's done, and now he's won.
   "It doesn't make sense for me to do this again," Earnhardt says.   
   "I don't ever want to do it again. And I'll never change my mind, ever."

   And then perhaps what to do for an encore?
   Earnhardt himself remember hasn't won in Cup in a long time.
   And then there's the Danica Patrick angle.
   This is the new bar that's been set for Danica Patrick, who drives these Nationwide cars for the Earnhardt-Hendrick JR Motorsports operation?
   Patrick will be back at the wheel of a Nationwide car at Chicago this next weekend....after an Indy-car weekend at Watkins Glen, following last week's unimpressive performance in a Nationwide car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   Well, Patrick certainly can't complain about these race cars or crew chief Tony Eury Jr.'s talents.
   This may well put pressure on her to make a decision: NASCAR or Indycars.

   Maybe so, maybe not.
   But Friday night here at Daytona International Speedway, as crew chief Tony Jr. put it, "the story ended like it should."
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 Maybe these two should have hooked up years ago.....Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Richard Childress. Together again, in victory lane (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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