Will Daytona Provide Fortune For Earnhardt Jr. – Again?
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. goes back to Daytona this week, he’ll have memories of going to victory lane there in last year’s Nationwide Series event, held prior to the Sprint Cup race won by RCR Enterprises driver Kevin Harvick.
For Earnhardt Jr., it was one of the few highlights of a 2010 season that was filled with frustrations and disappointments. But for that one race, a brief time, he enjoyed a complete change. He was the center of attention in an unforgettable car painted like those driven by his late father in the 1980s. For Earnhardt Jr., it was his last NASCAR victory to date.
What a difference a year makes. Earnhardt Jr. is running well, seems on the verge of winning again and, statistically, has three top-fives, eight top-10s and the pole position at Daytona in February.
Each time Earnhardt Jr. goes to Daytona, it’s like going home. It’s the place where Dale Earnhardt lost his life on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February of 2001. It’s also where Earnhardt Jr. returned five months later to score the most emotional win of his 12-year career.
Upon his death that terrible February day, Earnhardt had collected 76 wins in the famed No. 3 that he drove to six of his seven career championships. He still has the record for the most wins at DIS in all races held there since the track opened in 1959.
Before last year’s popular victory, Earnhardt Jr. confirmed DIS is a track that’s incredibly special for many reasons.
“Winning anywhere means a lot, sure,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Daytona is a special place to me because of my father dying there. I’m totally a part of the place for the rest of my life, regardless of the history of the track. Just this area. This place. I’ve seen every corner of this place. I love it as a town. And it hasn’t changed much to me.
“The track just has a beautiful history, so many great things have happened there. To me it’s ‘the track’ in our series. It’s the mother of all race tracks in this sport, in NASCAR racing. Everything about the sport leads back to this place to me in my mind, so it’s very important.”
Throughout practice sessions at the speedway leading up to last year’s race, Earnhardt Jr.’s special blue and yellow paint scheme was easily spotted anywhere on the track and served as a reminder of a magical time in stock car racing history.
Several of NASCAR’s iconic names were involved in the Nationwide Series win that memorable Saturday last year. Earnhardt Jr. was at the controls of a Richard Childress-owned Chevrolet carrying a Nationwide number registered to Teresa Earnhardt with an engine provided by Hendrick Motorsports, the Sprint Cup team for which Earnhardt Jr. presently drives. He once again had Tony Eury Jr. at his side as his crew chief and used his Sprint Cup crew on pit road. The car started from the third position and led the final 33 laps of the 250-mile race.
“It’s emotional,” Earnhardt Jr. said that day. “I’m proud of myself. I’m proud of what I did with the JR Motorsports group, I’m proud for Richard and Teresa and everybody who came together to make this happen, but mainly the fans. I hope they really got a lot out of this. It was trying, emotionally, to put it together.”
When asked what he was thinking during his late race lead, Earnhardt Jr. seemed to be just as nervous about getting to the checkered flag as the fans who were cheering him on.
“I was so worried I wasn’t going to win because nothing but a win was going to be good enough,” Earnhardt Jr. said in post-race interviews late that evening. “If I didn’t win, what a waste of time, why’d I do it? So I worked hard trying to win it and not only for daddy. I’m proud of him for going into the Hall of Fame and he would be proud of this I’m sure. This is it. No more No. 3 for me.”
That victory marked Earnhardt’s first Nationwide win on the 2.5-mile trioval since he won there in 2006. It was his sixth win at the historic track in the Nationwide series – the most among active drivers and just one win behind the overall leader, his father.
“I like winning here,” Earnhardt Jr. reflected. “I saw where daddy had two more Nationwide wins than I did, so it meant a lot to get close to him there. He’s at the top of the list in the record books. It would be cool to tie him or surpass him, which I still have an opportunity to do.”
Throughout the week, the buzz in the garage centered around Earnhardt Jr. carrying the No. 3 on the sides and top of his car. He used that number for two Nationwide championships in 1998 and 1999.
Many continue to speculate he will some day drive the No. 3 in Sprint Cup competition, but he said then it was something that would never happen. Driving the number his father made famous just once was enough.
“I will never do it. I’ll never rethink it. I’ll never consider it,” Earnhardt Jr. said that night. “I think that’s important for everybody to know. It’s as concrete as it gets. I’ll never do it again. It doesn’t make sense for me to do this again. I think in the Nationwide Series, it made enough sense and I really wanted to do it, and I’ve done it.”
With the Sprint Cup race only days away, Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports crew chief Steve Letarte have hope that the famed speedway will be where his 108-race winless streak comes to an end.
“We’ve got a fast car,“ Earnhardt Jr. said at Infineon Raceway this past week. “We sat on the pole there in February. We rebuilt that car and we’re taking it back. And I’m sure it’ll be great. I’m sure it will race really well.”
Yes, the two-car draft will be a part of this weekend’s storyline and many of the drivers’ feelings are mixed as far as the benefits the tight racing brings.
“It looks like you’re just going to have to team up with a guy and work with him all day long and try to stay out of wrecks and push him to the lead or get pushed to the lead, I don’t know,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It’s all going to come down to circumstances.
“I don’t enjoy the two-car draft because when I push somebody I can’t see around him. And I would like to be in control of my own destiny all the time; be in control and be able to win the race.”
Will Daytona once again smile upon NASCAR's most popular driver? This year, there are a lot more reasons to think it’s possible.
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