DOVER, Del. -- Inspired by Old Glory and its flag-waving fans, America's favorite driver ¡ Dale Earnhardt Jr. ¡ won the Cal Ripken Jr. 400 as NASCAR raced for the first time since the terrorist attacks.
"To see that reaction is really overwhelming. It's good to be reminded sometimes of what to be thankful for," he said Sunday after one of the most popular victories in the history of the sport.
Adding another special touch to the dramatic day, Earnhardt's car is No. 8, the same number Ripken has worn throughout his record-setting career with the Baltimore Orioles. The $3.3 million race was renamed in honor of Ripken, who waved the green flag to start the event.
Earnhardt got to be the final flag bearer, driving around with the stars and stripes hanging out of his car.
"I was so excited," he said. "It was great carrying the flag around the track at the end of race."
A crowd of 140,000, the largest in the nation Sunday, cheered ecstatically as Earnhardt, the son of NASCAR's greatest driver, won for the second time this season. He has become an icon in the sport since the death of his father in the season-opening Daytona 500.
His victory was saluted by yet another waving of American flags by a crowd fired-up just before the race by Lee Greenwood's stirring rendition of "God Bless the USA."
"When Lee Greenwood finished his song I had tears in my eyes," said second-place finisher Jerry Nadeau.
Tanya Tucker followed Greenwood with a patriotic medley as the crowd continued chanting "USA! ... USA! ... USA!" before standing silently as she sang the national anthem.
"It was so exciting to see the emotion of the fans," Earnhardt said. "It's amazing how everybody has come together after what has happened the last two weeks.
"I'm just proud to be an American."
Earnhardt's car, carrying a large flag deal on its rear decklid, dominated much of the race usually known as the MBNA.com 400. He led 193 of 400 laps, and by donating $100 per lap gave $40,000 to aid a relief fund for victims of the attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. He also had several pit stops under 14 seconds, which through another commitment raised his total donation to about $80,000.
Ripken was taken to Orioles Park by helicopter and was there at 4 p.m., three hours before the first pitch against the New York Yankees.
"It was a fabulous experience," he said. "Starting the race was a powerful experience. When they drove by on the second lap at 150 mph, it's enough to make you go, `Wow!'
"As a baseball player, I've been afforded some overwhelming experiences," he said. "Today was one of the greatest ever."
It was the second emotional victory this season for Earnhardt. He also won the Pepsi 400 in July on the return of the Winston Cup cars to the track where his father, a seven-time series champion, died Feb. 18.
The 26-year-old Earnhardt dominated the first half of the race, but lost seven positions with a very slow pit stop on lap 269. But he got a break when leader Ricky Rudd was hit by Rusty Wallace and spun on lap 345.
"He got a fender on us and took the race away from us," said Rudd, who had words with Wallace after the race, and was seen pushing him in the stomach.
Earnhardt came out of the pits third on lap 347, passed Nadeau and took the lead when he blew by Dale Jarrett on the high-banked third turn on lap 362.
The crowd rose to its feet screaming with delight, and Earnhardt didn't disappoint them, withstanding a final caution that bunched the field when Jarrett spun on lap 388.
But Earnhardt pulled away and won for the fourth time in his career when his Chevrolet beat Nadeau's by 1.576 seconds.
"I had nothing for Junior," Nadeau said. "He had the best car. He was so fast on old tires and new tires."
Earnhardt then drove around with the flag as the crowd ¡ many dressed in red, white and blue ¡ roared its approval.
"Sometimes we don't do so good at the end," he said. "But this time the car was really running good when it counted."
The winner averaged 101.559 mph in a race slowed 11 times by 71 laps of caution. There were 13 lead changes among seven drivers
"The car ran good when it counted," he said. "It ran tight in the middle of the race and was bouncing around."
Rudd was third in a Ford, followed by the Chevy of points leader and June Dover winner Jeff Gordon.
Gordon was satisfied with the finish that left him 212 points ahead of Rudd.
"It felt like I ran 500 laps," Gordon said. "I knocked in a couple of fenders, but it was great to get up there in the top five."
Defending race champion Tony Stewart was fifth in a Pontiac.
The track continued its policy of tight security, which included a ban on coolers. No incidents were reported.
Jeremy Mayfield crashed hard into the first-turn wall early in the race, was examined at Bay Hill Hospital and released.
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