DALE JR. WINS AT DAYTONA

Junior Grabs Second 500 Win

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500 for the second time -- a decade after his first victory -- to snap a 55-race losing streak and virtually securing a spot in NASCAR Chase For the Sprint Cup championship (photo courtesy: Tom Pennington/GETTY IMAGES SPORT)

The 2014 NASCAR season is officially underway after Sunday’s 56th running of the Daytona 500. NASCAR has instituted a number of changes in 2014 to enhance the racing each week. The new Chase For the Sprint Cup format rewards those who perform at the highest level when the championship is on the line. The Chase For The NASCAR Sprint Cup will culminate at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 16.

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Combined with the announced rules changes to the cars to create more passing, closer racing, the new knockout round qualifying format, every race weekend has a real sense of urgency and electricity. The NASCAR Sprint Series comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway for the Ford EcoBoost 400 on Sunday, November 16.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off Denny Hamlin to capture his second career Daytona 500 victory on Sunday evening, nearly assuring himself of a Chase berth. Under the new Chase format, any driver with a win qualifies for the Chase provided they are in the top 30 in points. Points will also be used to add or remove drivers if there were more or less than 16 winners this season.

It was a landmark night for Earnhardt Jr., who snapped a 55-race winless streak dating back to 2012. The Hendrick Motorsports driver finished second in three of the previous four editions of the “Great American Race,” but got over the hump at Daytona International Speedway for the first time since 2004.

"This racecar was awesome," said Earnhardt, who led a race-high 54 laps. "We showed 'em all night long how good a car we had, and it's because these guys who put it together in the shop. That (car) would do anything – we fought off battle after battle and we got a little help at the end from Jeff (Gordon) to get away on that restart and we tried to take care of it from there."

From a historical standpoint, Sunday’s win was huge for Dale Jr. However, this Daytona win has big implications for the rest of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series campaign. With the new changes to this year’s Championship format, Earnhardt Jr. has virtually assured himself a berth in the Chase For the Sprint Cup with his 20th Sprint Cup Series victory, answering the question of whether an emphasis on winning might hurt his title chances and whether the impending departure of crew chief Steve Letarte (who will leave for an NBC-TV analyst role in 2015) would cause distractions.

"We're going for the jugular this year," said Earnhardt.

Under NASCAR's new Chase For the Sprint Cup format, any race winner qualifies for the season-ending 10-race playoff, which also will feature elimination rounds and a winner-take-all championship finale among four drivers at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 16. All 43 will be racing in the Ford EcoBoost 400 but only four drivers will be eligible for the Sprint Cup.

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In January, NASCAR announced it was expanding its Chase For the Sprint Cup field to include 16 drivers. The field will include race winners and the highest ranking remaining winless drivers. Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, no season has had more than 16 different winners in the first 26 races.  Personally, I think that with the changes to the Championship format, we may see a record for the number of winners this year.  Regardless, Junior Nation has to be optimistic about almost certainly securing a spot for NASCAR's postseason, and the impact it will have on the rest of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s season now that some pressure is off of him.

Under the new “win-and—almost–certainly-get-in” format announced last month, Earnhardt Jr. is now that much closer to having a chance to race for the title and can spend the next 25 races preparing for the postseason.

Pre-race favorite Denny Hamlin voiced his opinion about seeing Dale Jr. in Gatorade Victory Lane.

"It's big for a lot of reasons," said Hamlin. "He's obviously going into the last year with (Letarte). They are going to start making Chase plans now. They're very flexible in what they can try.

"As far as the race win, it's obviously very significant that any Earnhardt wins at Daytona."

Hamlin finished second Sunday and one spot short of becoming the first driver to sweep the Cup races of Speedweeks at Daytona. Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and a Budweiser Duel 150.

Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway takes place Nov. 14-16, and begins with the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series under the lights on Friday night. On Saturday, Sept. 15, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will hit the track as the precursor to the Nov. 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship finale.

With the recent changes to the championship format and increased focus on winning, NASCAR will further recognize the winning driver with a WINNER decal to display on their car. 

All NASCAR Sprint Cup Series winners now will receive the decal, to be placed next to the driver’s name above the door, following a victory. Earnhardt Jr. was the first recipient of the new decal.

Next up for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers is The Profit on CNBC 500, Presented by Small Business Fueling America at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday, March 2 (3 p.m. EST, FOX, MRN Radio, SiriusXM Radio Channel 90) —Race 2 of 36 en route to Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 14-16).

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