- Associated Press - Monday, February 21, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. (AP) - Surrounded by friends and strangers, Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched a highlight video of previous Daytona 500 races.

His late father was featured prominently.

There also was a huge No. 3 painted in the infield grass at Daytona International Speedway and a moment of silence during the third lap.

Earnhardt welcomed all the tributes. He might be glad to leave them behind, too.

After what had to be a difficult week, one that was mostly about the 10-year anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona, Junior can now move on.

“Had as much fun as we could under the circumstances,” Earnhardt said following a 24th-place finish in Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

He drove from the back of the pack to the front of the field, led nine laps that brought his loyal fans to their feet and was in contention most of the afternoon.

But much like his last two seasons at Hendrick Motorsports, Earnhardt’s day ended with disappointment.

He wrecked on the first green-white-checkered restart. It wasn’t what Earnhardt wanted. It was, however, fitting considering how the season opener went for Hendrick Motorsports.

Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon had lengthy trips to the garage, and Mark Martin faded from contention in the final laps. Throw in Earnhardt’s ride to the infield care center, and the Daytona 500 was one to forget for team owner Rick Hendrick and his powerhouse team.

“Very disappointing,” Gordon said. “It’s definitely not what we wanted. It’s disappointing when you don’t have a shot in the Daytona 500, especially when you have as good a car and team as we all do.”

Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, finished 19 laps behind race winner Trevor Bayne. Gordon, the four-time series champion who started on the front row, was 35 laps back.

Martin had Hendrick’s best finish, a 10th-place showing that came after his early trouble.

Earnhardt could have saved the day for the powerhouse team and had the car to do it. But David Ragan and Ryan Newman got together after that late restart and changed everything. Newman hit the wall, and Earnhardt’s car quickly became collateral damage.

Earnhardt extended his winless streak to 94 races.

“I figured we would run good,” Earnhardt said. “I was very happy with how fast we got up through there at the start of the race. … It was a shame we couldn’t get a good finish for them.”

Earnhardt has come up short in his last seven starts in the Daytona 500, all since his lone victory in 2004.

“We have had some pretty tough luck down here and didn’t get the finish we wanted,” he said.

Earnhardt has been equally discouraged with his past two seasons, finishing 25th and 21st, respectively.

The mediocre results came a year after teammates Johnson, Martin and Gordon gave Hendrick an unprecedented sweep of the top three spots in the final points standings. So team owner Rick Hendrick responded by moving everyone except Johnson and longtime crew chief Chad Knaus.

Earnhardt was looking for a confidence boost at Daytona. But it had to be tough with all the questions and tributes about his father’s death.

“It will be awesome to see all those things, hear all the great things,” Earnhardt said last week. “Anytime anybody says something good about him, it makes you feel great. It will be good. It will be a good weekend for the family. My grandmother will probably enjoy hearing all the great things that will be said, as will all of us.”

But the only thing he’s concerned about is finding more success on the track _ something that didn’t happen at Daytona.

“The only thing that affects my mood and my personality I guess is directly connected to the performance factor in the sport,” he said. “That’s the one thing that weighs on you.”

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