- Associated Press - Monday, February 25, 2013

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the podium between Mark Martin and Danica Patrick.

He was right in the middle, for sure, but far from center stage at Daytona _ again.

Earnhardt used a last-lap charge Sunday to finish second in the Daytona 500 for the third time in the last four years, another runner-up performance that left NASCAR’s most popular driver clamoring to get back to Victory Lane at one of auto racing’s showcase events.

“It’s like a drug, I assume,” said Earnhardt, who also finished second in 2010 and 2012. “It’s such a high. You just don’t know when you’ll ever get that opportunity again or if you’ll ever get that opportunity again. I knew before I won in 2004, I was reserved to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire career because I knew all too well how that was for my father.”

Jimmie Johnson held off Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 for the second time. Martin was third, a solid showing for a part-time driver. Patrick was eighth, the highest finish for a woman in 55 years of NASCAR’s premier event. She also became the first woman to lead laps in “The Great American Race.”

Earnhardt sat between them during post-race interviews, listening to Martin talk about his relationship with 50 Cent and hearing Patrick answer countless questions about making history as a female driver.

Earnhardt’s run was just another oh-so-close finish at Daytona, where his family name is forever linked because of triumph and tragedy.

“I felt so much relief when I did win it,” Earnhardt said. “I’m ready to do it again. It’s been too long. Running second over and over is great and all for our team, a good start to the season. Even having to go through all the hassle that Jimmie is about to go through this week, it’s worth it.”

The second-place finish turned around what had been a lackluster Speedweeks for Earnhardt, whose famous father died during a final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.

Junior qualified 19th for the race, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at the Daytona 500. His confidence remained high, though, possibly because he was glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.

So it was no huge surprise to see him near the front late in the race.

But instead of taking risks and pulling out of line in hopes of taking the lead, he simply waited for the right opportunity to make a move.

It came during the final 2 1/2 miles. And with help from Martin.

Their crews agreed to team up on a late restart with six laps to go in the 200-lap race. They swerved under Patrick and sped past Greg Biffle, but couldn’t get by Johnson.

“Obviously I knew Junior had a fast car and is one of the masters here, certainly would trust his judgment,” Martin said. “If things would have got crazy enough, maybe we could have got the big trophy.”

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