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February 24, 2014

A long time coming: Junior back in Victory Lane at Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. cruised down pit road, stopping just long enough for Rick Hendrick to climb halfway inside his window for the short lift to Victory Lane.

Once there, Junior slipped from the beloved No. 88 Chevrolet, bounded past TV cameras and hugged every single crew member he could find to thank them for getting him his second Daytona 500 victory.

This was a celebration 10 years in the making.

It probably won't be the last this season.

And maybe not the biggest.

"We're going for the jugular this year," Earnhardt said after Sunday night's win in the season-opening Daytona 500.

NASCAR's most popular driver had to wait out a rain delay of more than six hours, then a chaotic close to end a 55-race drought dating back to 2012. His breakthrough win came at Daytona International Speedway, where he'd finished second in three of the previous four 500s and won "The Great American Race" a decade ago.

His emotions were clearly mixed in the moments after the finish. He screamed the win was better than the first as he took the checkered flag, then did an about-face in Victory Lane.

"I'm grateful to have one it twice now. I was grateful to have won it once," he said. "In about six months, I'll be as urgent to try to do it a third time as I was after the first."

When he finally arrived for his post-race news conference, soaked in beer and champagne nearly two hours after the win and a little over 11 hours after the race first began, he practically sprinted into the room. Arms raised, he yelled "Woo!"

"I bet someone hasn't come in here and screamed in 30 years," he said early Monday morning. "They used to!"

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