Earnhardt Jr.’s Dash at Daytona Fuels Sprint Cup Contender Talk
Earnhardt Jr. was in 22nd position before the first green-white-checkered scenario, and he was 10th to begin the second restart falling just short of McMurray (photo courtesy: John Harrelson, Getty Images Sport)
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did not win the 2010 Daytona 500. In fact, he led just four laps and had an average running position outside the Top 10 despite starting on the front row alongside Hendrick Motorsports teammate and co-fan favorite Mark Martin. But in a furious final two laps at Daytona—flying through the field, darting left and right into whatever opening his No. 88 Chevrolet could fit—Earnhardt Jr. drove all the way from 10th place to second, where he finished just shy of winner Jamie McMurray.
During the second of two green-white-checkered attempts at the season opener, Earnhardt rekindled memories of his father's 2000 victory at Talladega, where “The Intimidator” rallied from 18th place to first during the final five laps.
"I was just going wherever they weren't," Earnhardt said. "I really don't enjoy being that aggressive. But if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best."
It was a considerable improvement from his disastrous start in 2009, from which he never recovered. And his finish at Daytona has “Junior Nation” touting him as a possible contender for the Sprint Cup trophy –to be awarded to the Champion Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
After his slow start last year, Earnhardt Jr. changed his crew chief and struggled to a 25th-place finish in the Sprint Cup Series standings. His confidence waned, pressure mounted and NASCAR's most popular driver slowly sank into the worst season of his career.
Junior entered this year’s season opener at Daytona with a Paul Bunyan-esque beard and a vow to be "ruthless from the first lap to the last" by being more aggressive and proactive in getting his car to Victory Lane.
"I feel a lot of pressure from [the news media and] the public," he says. "You get headlines every offseason about what everybody expects you to do. Most of the time the headlines sting a little."
Earnhardt couldn't find too much to complain about after Race 1 at Daytona, applauding his team's decision to pit for two right-side tires on Lap 195 of the scheduled 200-lap event.
"I feel pretty good," Earnhardt said. "I'm happy for my team. They worked so hard--awesome engine. They made a good call at the end to put tires on. Everybody had 35 laps on their tires. That just made everybody with tires look like Superman. So it was a good call for them to make that choice. We weren't going anywhere otherwise."
Forgive him and his fans if they are feeling a bit rejuvenated after his thrilling run over the final laps, even though he fell short of victory.
"You know, I just hope we can keep it up,” said Earnhardt. “You can say that this is [restrictor] plate racing, but it really wasn't today, most of the week anyways. ... I feel good about our chances going into the next couple weeks."
The next race in the pursuit of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series Championship—to be crowned Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—is slated for Sunday, Feb. 21, at Auto Club Speedway and will be broadcast on FOX at 2 PM.
All three of NASCAR’s premier racing series—the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series—again will crown Champions during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19-21). For ticket information, stay tuned to THEChampionshipTrack.com or call toll free (866) 409-RACE.
Doing It Again in 2010/Kids FREE: Homestead-Miami Speedway is the only venue ever to host all of North America’s premier motorsports Championships, and it’s more of the same this fall as THE Championship Track is the site for both the Izod IndyCar (Oct. 1-2) Championship and NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend (Nov. 19-21), as well as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series “Grand Prix of Miami” March 6. Kids 12 & under are FREE to six of the seven races. For tickets, call (866) 409-RACE or visit THEChampionshipTrack.com.