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NASCAR was shaken to its core following Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s tragic death at the 2001 Daytona 500. His passing left a massive void in his son’s life, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. chose to push forward with his racing career. During his unforgettable first win following his father’s death, Earnhardt Jr. dealt with a behind-the-scenes controversy during the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. earns his first win after his dad’s tragic death

Dale Earnhardt Sr.‘s death during the 2001 Daytona 500 left a massive void. Dale Jr. continued to push forward with his racing career to honor his father and the family legacy. All that guided him toward one of his most emotional race victories.

In July 2001, Earnhardt Jr. managed to squeeze out a win at the Pepsi 400, held at Daytona International Speedway. It marked his first victory after his dad’s death and took place at the same track where the tragic incident unfolded months earlier.

Earnhardt Jr. dominated the race that day as he led 116 of 160 total laps. He fell from the lead to the sixth spot with six laps left. However, he managed to move back up to the top position to grab the win, capped off by his teammate Michael Waltrip protecting him on the last lap.

Beyond all the emotions that flowed from that win, Earnhardt Jr. dealt with a minor controversy with his sponsor during the race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. disobeyed Budweiser’s orders in his emotional first race win after his dad’s death

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s proudest moment of his NASCAR career left a lasting memory for reasons beyond his first win after his dad’s death.

What wasn’t publicized was that Earnhardt Jr. went through a controversial internal issue with his sponsor, Budweiser. In his No. 8 car, he chose to place a skull-and-crossbones sticker, a symbol associated with death and poison.

Budweiser said the sticker conflicted with the company’s messaging since they’re in the alcohol business. Despite that, he decided the night before the race to sneak into the car and put the sticker on the dashboard.

“Just a sticker I thought was cool,” Earnhardt Jr. voiced via Reddit. “So I snuck it into the car and stuck it on the dash that night. Bud was pissed off because of the connection of that symbol with poison.”

He brushed it aside, but it wasn’t until years later that he learned Budweiser had asked to remove the sticker during the race. “They actually asked our team if I could remove it during the race,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I didn’t get that information till years later.”

Unforgettable NASCAR moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. will cherish forever

Standing on top of his car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his emotional 2001 Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates his emotional 2001 Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway. | ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images

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The controversy didn’t prevent the pivotal win in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s NASCAR career. He has a tremendous appreciation for the victory, given the emotional connection to his father. After all, he had a strong personal tie to his dad, which he only further cherishes as he gets older.

One of Earnhardt’s passions in his life is finding various ways to honor and strengthen his father’s legacy. The win on the track at Daytona that day is one of the shining moments. All the noise that lingered for years doesn’t take away from the special place it holds in Earnhardt’s life.