There was a collective pause among the thousands in the grandstands and millions tuned into the television as Earnhardt drove the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet across the finish line in the Nationwide Series race -- the car's blue-and-yellow retro paint scheme a tribute to his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who drove the No. 3 to six of his seven championships before he was killed in an accident on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
As Earnhardt made his victory lap early Saturday morning, absorbing and cherishing the crowd's emotion, his crew chief and first cousin, Tony Eury Jr., put his head into his hands and cried openly on pit road. Then his dad's former team owner and best friend, Richard Childress, met him in the victory circle for a congratulatory hug and to assure him his dad would be proud.
Proud not because Earnhardt won another race -- he's won eight of them on Daytona's high banks -- but because he took the tougher road and prevailed.
Proud because he voluntarily took on the heavy burden of driving "his father's car" and even with all the unfair expectations and heightened emotion heaped upon him in the last nine years, he prevailed.
Not even his father -- the sport's legend and great icon -- had ever raced with so much on the line.
"I feel lucky, very lucky because I was so worried that I wasn't going to win because nothing but a win was good enough,'' Earnhardt said after climbing out of the car.
"Just for everybody in the world, you know. If you didn't win, it would have been, 'what a waste of time, why did he do it?' ''
He didn't have to do it.
But Earnhardt, along with Childress and his step-mom Teresa, wanted to honor his father's May induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame's inaugural class.
And the reception has been wildly popular -- so much love for a car number and the memories it evokes.
The speedway was overrun with fans decked out in the blue-and-yellow colors of the No. 3 Wrangler Chevrolet driven by his father in the early 1980s. T-shirts with images of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s famous smirk were everywhere, as if smiling on the whole scene.
And yet there will be those conspiracy theorists insisting this finish was somehow orchestrated by NASCAR, that it's simply too good to be true.
But it is true. And it is good.
And that's okay.
They say that "to whom much is given, much is expected." But with Earnhardt Jr., that equation was always out of balance.
When Earnhardt Sr. was killed that February afternoon nine years ago, his namesake lost a father, gained a nation and took on a burden.
His popularity immediately skyrocketed as "Junior Nation" established itself -- a citizenship comprised of as many of his dad's former fans as fans of his own young career.
With the adulation came huge expectations and even greater pressure to succeed. Especially in the beginning, it felt like he wasn't just competing for himself but for the memory of his dad.
And Earnhardt won early on driving for his father's team -- even earning a Daytona 500 trophy in 2004, his fifth try -- a feat that took his father 20 years to accomplish.
But when he joined NASCAR's uber-team, Hendrick Motorsports, three years ago following a contract dispute with his step-mom, the expectations rose still.
Hendrick fields cars for four-time champs Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, so surely Earnhardt would win there, too, and often.
Yet Saturday night's victory was his first since a Sprint Cup Series win at Michigan in June of 2008.
For the first time in so long, Earnhardt looked genuinely joyful. He could exhale. He could enjoy.
When the stakes were highest, he came through.
"It's emotional, you know,'' Earnhardt said Saturday night amid cheers and a standing ovation well after the race had finished.
"I'm proud of doing what I did with this group ... but mainly this was for the fans. I hope that they really got a lot out of this, because it was trying emotionally to put it together.
"I feel real lucky to have won the race. I want everybody just to be happy. That's all.''
"This is for his fans,'' said Earnhardt. "Hope they enjoyed this. This is it, no more 3 for me.''
His dad would be proud.
And Earnhardt Jr. should be too.