HAMPTON, Ga. — The tears flowed for Dale Earnhardt again, nearly four hours after 7,000 black balloons had drifted toward the heavens and thousands of fans held up three fingers to honor his memory.
The tears were of a different texture this time. Fate finally had smiled down on the Dale Earnhardt racing empire, concocting a potent elixir of healing, giddiness, and split-second dramatics.
Rookie Kevin Harvick, driving the No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet he inherited after Earnhardt's tragic spin at Daytona only three weeks ago, edged Jeff Gordon by inches to win the Cracker Barrel 500 on Sunday.
The photo finish came after Harvick's daring charge four laps from the finish, when he pulled alongside Jerry Nadeau and Dale Jarrett coming out of Turn 4 to take the lead on the three-wide pass.
"It's a very emotional deal," owner Richard Childress said. "I used to think I wasn't emotional, and I guess I found out lately how soft I am."
Nadeau was third, followed by Jarrett and Terry Labonte in a race that was eerily reminiscent of a year ago when Earnhardt held off Bobby Labonte to win by 0.010 of a second in what had been the closest finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This is one of those scripts that would get rejected for being unbelievably perky. Harvick, 25, got married in Las Vegas on Feb. 28, only 10 days after Earnhardt's death on the final lap of the Daytona 500 left an incredible pall over the sport of stock-car racing and put Harvick in an unenviable position of following the lead of "the Intimidator."
The kid didn't disappoint Sunday, making that memorable run on the leaders and holding off one of Earnhardt's most fierce challengers on the NASCAR circuit by .006 of a second--the edge of his front bumper. Harvick's victory comes in only his third series start, a Winston Cup record.
It took a few seconds until Harvick could cherish the moment. Halfway down the back straightway after the finish, he screamed into his radio: "Who won? Who won?"
After getting confirmation from his pit crew, Harvick decorated the infield with a series of doughnuts before taking a reverse victory lap and waving three fingers out the window in honor of Earnhardt. An estimated 125,000 fans cheered approvingly.
Moments later, Childress, members of a pit crew that Harvick inherited from Earnhardt and Harvick's wife, DeLana, were weeping at Victory Circle, waiting for their man to scoot in. Gordon and Jarrett then dropped by to offer their congratulations, as did members of other crews.
"We care a lot about one another," Gordon said. "This is part of your extended family. Richard Childress and that whole race team has been through a lot here lately. It was a happy moment for a lot of people."
The legacy Earnhardt left behind is running left-handed turns around the competition, having won three of the four Winston Cup races this year. Michael Waltrip won at Daytona, followed by Steve Park's victory at Rockingham.
"I don't even know how to put it into words," Harvick said during his post-race news conference.
"I didn't expect to win my third time out. I'm still sitting here wondering what to do. Should I jump up and down, or should I jump off the building? I don't know. It's a pretty cool feeling to have, I'll tell you that much."
The final 10 laps marked a furious run by five drivers--Harvick, Gordon, Jarrett, Nadeau and Dale Earnhardt Jr. It dwindled down to four when Earnhardt's left front tire blew out on the next-to-final lap. It became a two-man race to the finish between Harvick and Gordon on the final lap, with Harvick barely staving off the charge of Gordon.
"I'm a race-car driver," Gordon said. "I'm going to try to drive the wheels off that car and try to win no matter what. And I certainly was giving it everything I had, but I think there was a higher power watching over today that wanted to see that outcome."