It's a NASCAR moment that likely will forever be frozen in time: There in victory lane, a smiling Dale Earnhardt Jr. received a bear hug of congratulations from an equally beaming father Dale in April 2000 at Texas Motor Speedway, celebrating the younger Earnhardt's first career Sprint Cup victory (see video below for Junior's win and celebration).
The emotion displayed by both father and son was as true, deep and raw as you will likely ever find. Yet just over 10 months later, the senior Earnhardt would be taken from both NASCAR and this world when he died in a crash on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt died while blocking and protecting then-teammate Michael Waltrip and Junior's burst toward the finish line for a 1-2 Dale Earnhardt Inc. finish in the Great American Race.
It was the greatest moment and biggest race win in DEI history when Waltrip and Junior crossed the finish line—and without question its worst day as well when, an hour later and trying to hold back his emotions, NASCAR president Mike Helton somberly announced to the world, "We've lost Dale Earnhardt."
There's no question that was also the worst day of Earnhardt Jr.'s life. But from that came a comfort and reassurance that Junior has reflected back on numerous times in his career, that sunny day in Texas where everything was perfect, where he proved to his old man that he was a winner and a chip off the old block in only his 12th career Sprint Cup start.
What's more, that win—whether anyone has ever realized it or not—essentially planted the seeds for Junior to eventually begin a run that would make him the most popular driver in NASCAR not once, but for 11 consecutive years (and likely will be No. 12 when this year's vote is announced later this season).
Of course, countless Earnhardt fans tried to hold on to any vestige of the late Intimidator by transferring their loyalties from late father to son, a loyalty that continues for many to this very day.
But try as he may, the younger Earnhardt has been vexed since that first and only win of his Cup career at Texas. He's finished runner-up twice, including last November's Chase for the Sprint Cup race, but he has yet to return to that same Victory Lane where he stood so proudly with his father—and vice-versa.
Something tells me that will change Sunday. If there ever was a perfect time for any of the first six race winners this season to win a second event, it's Earnhardt's time. By doing so, it would essentially clinch his berth in this year's new format Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Not only did the younger Earnhardt win this year's season-opening Daytona 500, he also has two other runner-up finishes and a third-place showing in this past Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia.
On top of that, Earnhardt is once again atop the Sprint Cup standings. Plus, Texas Motor Speedway happens to be one of his favorite race tracks: In 23 career starts there, he's finished in the top 10 more than half the time (13, to be exact).
TMS holds so many happy memories for Junior. Additionally, he's driving the best he ever has in his career. When someone asks why Earnhardt should win at Texas, I respond back by saying, "Why not?"
Junior owes it to himself, his crew chief, his team—and most importantly, to his late father—to drive like he's never driven before and make that long-awaited return to Victory Lane in Texas.
If he does, even though his father is no longer with us, you just know Big E will be there in spirit, beaming with that big old mustachioed smile and feeling the same kind of pride he felt about his youngest son that beautiful spring day in April 13 years ago.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski