DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) - It’s been a decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lone Daytona 500 victory.
He’s come close so many times since, even finishing second three of the last four years, but has yet to make that coveted drive down pit road and into Victory Lane.
No one should be surprised to find him back there Sunday.
Forget that Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have won the first three Sprint Cup races during Speedweeks. Disregard that Richard Childress Racing has pole-sitter Austin Dillon, who is driving the No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt’s late father, as well as three other stout cars. Ignore that anything can and often does happen at Daytona International Speedway.
This just might be Junior’s year. The 39-year-old driver seems primed for his best season ever, and it starts at the track forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
“I’m excited about getting back out there,” Earnhardt said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can do and how our performance is going to be right off the bat. It’s going to be a fun year, I think. I think we’re going to enjoy ourselves. We did last year. We seem to get better every year, and hopefully that trajectory is still the same going into this season.”
Earnhardt was fifth in points last season, his best showing since finishing third in 2003. And had NASCAR already switched to its new points system, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup championship.
He had eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase, hitting his stride just a few weeks too late to catch Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson edged Kenseth for his sixth title in the last eight seasons.
Earnhardt was nearly as hot as those two down the stretch, and he’s hoping to find some carry-over into “The Great American Race.”
He won the 2004 Daytona 500, the first of his six victories that season. But he has just four victories since and no multi-win seasons.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but time goes by pretty fast,” Earnhardt said. “It seems like these last several years have really flown by, especially when you enjoy yourself. They seemed to grind out when you’re not running too well, but the last couple of years have flown by pretty fast.”
Earnhardt made the Chase the last three years, becoming increasingly comfortably at Hendrick while working with crew chief Steve Letarte. Together, they turned around the No. 88 Chevrolet and made it a contender.
But Letarte announced last month he will step down after this season, leaving to become a race analyst for NBC Sports in 2015. So this year could be the ultra-popular driver’s best chance to win his first Cup championship.
“The biggest thing that stands out is just how well he and Junior connect,” said fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon, who previously worked with Letarte. “You want to be able to have that experience as well as knowledge. He’s a smart guy, and you want to have that on your side in any shape or form, whether as a crew chief or in another role at Hendrick.”
That connection led Earnhardt to finish second to Jamie McMurray (2010), Kenseth (2012) and Johnson (2013) in recent years at Daytona.
“They’ve all been close,” he said. “In none of those races did I have a situation where I went, ‘I let it slip by. I messed up right there.’ Most of the time, we run our guts out and come to the finish line and we just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race.
“When you make that move or have a chance and you don’t do the right thing and you lose, that’s difficult to swallow. Haven’t been in that situation even though we’ve run second.”
Recalling how those unfolded, Earnhardt already knows where he wants to be on the final lap Sunday - up front.
“As far as trying to win one of these races - or not run second again - I think we need to be up front,” Earnhardt said. “We’re not far enough toward the front. When we’ve run second, we’ve come from third or fourth or fifth or sixth those last few laps.
“You’re not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race. I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”
And if he in that position, he just might wind up in Daytona’s Victory Lane again.
“You never forget exactly what that day is like,” he said. “It all floods back to you as soon as you come back for Speedweeks each season. It’s very fresh, and you’re constantly reminded I think by just what goes on during Speedweeks how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again. It’s definitely fresh.”
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