DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - It’s been years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a non-factor during Speedweeks.
He finished second in the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona 500 last year. He was the pole-sitter for the 500 in 2011, the 10-year year anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona International Speedway. He started second and finished second in 2010, weaving his way through traffic in a frantic final lap.
He typically garners headlines and the majority of the attention leading up to NASCAR’s “Great American Race,” an event forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
This year, Earnhardt has been a mere footnote.
He qualified 19th for Sunday’s Daytona 500, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at NASCAR’s premier event. His confidence remains high, possibly because he’s glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
“We’ve got a good car,” Earnhardt said. “Anybody can win, but we’ve got a good piece. If we get that balance right and get the thing to turning good, we’ll have a great shot.”
Early results say otherwise.
Earnhardt wrecked several cars during a Daytona test in January. He didn’t lead a lap in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited last week and finished eighth in what boiled down to a 12-car field. He was off the leaders’ pace in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday and came home ninth.
Those race results tend to be an indicator of who’s the one to beat in the Daytona 500.
Then again, anything can and often does happen in the Daytona 500.
With a completely revamped race car for 2013, the same could be said for the season.
Earnhardt made the Chase for the championship last year, but finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of post-concussion symptoms.
But running in the top five in points most of the season, and even spending a few weeks atop the standings, provided a big boost for a ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup championship.
“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt said. “Really excited about how consistent we were last year. We’ve been able to improve as we’ve worked together. We’ve been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that’s able to continue.