The 2003 Ford 400 is widely considered the second greatest NASCAR race of all time, with two noteworthy stories dominating the race: the final fulltime season race of record eight time champion Dale Earnhardt's twenty-eight-year career, and the battle for the series points championship with four drivers (with Matt Kenseth leading in points) mathematically eligible to win the title. The race was attended by around 400,000 people eager to watch Dale's last race, filling out both the grandstands and the infield.
Pre-race ceremonies completely revolved around NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, celebrations of his career, remembering some of his biggest crashes and biggest achievements and the biggest fan meet seen since Richard Petty's retirement 11 years prior. Dale gave his prediction for who would win, citing Jimmie Johnson as his favorite to win. "The boy can drive them wheels right off that #48. I think he's gotta win this one, along with his first championship". Dale also cited Johnson, Gordon and Dale Jr. as NASCAR's next big "trio". Celebrations concluded and regular prerace ceremonies began.
It took almost three and a half hours for Bobby Labonte to defeat Kevin Harvick by nearly 1.8 seconds in front of 75,000 fans. The race was dominated by Bill Elliott, who led 189 out of 267 laps, but he cut a tire on the next to last turn on the last lap while leading and finished 8th. NASCAR officials handed out ten cautions for 60 laps while 21 different changes in the lead position were made. Matt Kenseth earned the last-place position on the 28th lap of this 267-lap racing event. Drivers who failed to make the race were Ken Schrader, Kyle Petty, Mike Wallace, Derrike Cope, and Rich Bickle. The race was plagued with oil issues and accidents, while debris caused only one caution throughout the race. Despite Kenseth's last-place finish, he would go on to clinch the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship after this race.
Dale drove a scheme similar to an unused Goodwrench scheme designed in 1987 that he also ran in Rockingham, he started 25th, but led the pace laps as the pace car. His final race had him leading for 30 laps, but finished 29th, five laps down, after a wreck with 15 laps to go. Prior to the wreck Dale came into turn 1 a little high and Kurt Busch managed to bump Dale, get him loose up the track and race inside of him. Down the backstretch Dale was seen flipping Kurt the bird once again, Reminscent of the 2001 Daytona 500 moment that made Kurt famous. Dale was racing for 5th place. All was fine until they went into turn 3, when Kurt Busch bumped into his right rear corner, and sent him spinning.
At the last moment, his car went airborne, and flipped over several times, with damage. After Dale managed to limp his car to the garage, he climbed out obviously highly enraged by the incident. His crew was able to get his car back onto the track for the final lap. Dale promptly forgot about being angry at Kurt Busch, but he still finished 25th, 5 laps down.
After this finish, the grandstand went wild when the damaged #3 car took its final lap around Homestead, much like Richard Petty's final race. In his post race interview with NBC's Marty Snider, Dale said, visibly choked up with tears, "All these years, driving for the same sponsor and team. I wanna thank Richard (Childress) for the opportunity he gave me, as well as Humpy Wheeler, and everyone else. I wanna thank Goodwrench for sticking with me even through the bad years, and want to say to Jeff Gordon: You are the face of the sport now, Don't let me down boy". Dale finished the year 10th in points and was honored at the Banquet in New York for his illustrious NASCAR career, and also won Driver of the Year, unseating Bill Elliott. Dale's final car went to the DEI museum after the race concluded. Kurt Busch was fined post-season for his actions towards Dale, and the wrecking of the former, in the 2003 Ford 400.
Jamie McMurray qualified for the pole position, driving at speeds up to 181.111 miles per hour (291.470 km/h), while the average speed for the actual race was 116.868 miles per hour (188.081 km/h). This was Ron Hornaday Jr.'s last NASCAR Winston Cup Series race until Atlanta in 2015.