Junior Gives Crowd A Thrill
Daytona Beach, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. discovered some of his old plate racing magic Sunday in the Daytona 500.
The crowd favorite charged from 10th to second place on the final lap of the season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup race – it was probably the most important runner-up finish of his career.
Earnhardt, the son of a seven-time Cup champion and long considered one of the biggest stars in the stock car sport, has suffered through two miserable seasons since joining the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports team.
He won one race and made the Chase in 2008, but finished 12th in the points. Last year, while teammates Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon finished 1-2-3 in the championship, Junior failed to win a race and wound up 25th in the points.
Team owner Rick Hendrick has said repeatedly since the end of last season that he and the team were going to do whatever it took to get Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet turned around this year.
It wasn’t the win he had hoped for, but Sunday’s performance was definitely a step in the right direction.
“I feel good about the finish,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s just frustrating coming that close. … you’re mad because you just want to get a top 10. When you get a top 10, you’re pissed off because you can’t get in the top five. Then when you’re running second it gets you mad because you didn’t get a win. That’s how race car drivers are, I hope.
“We worked hard all week. I felt foolish about what happened to us in the 150 (qualifying race). We beat the fenders off the car and had to drop back and punt. I just didn’t like racing that way. We ran pretty hard today. We had a car that got ill handling and we faded a bit. We worked on it. We had all kinds of messes going on there.
“When it got cool,’’ he added, “everybody’s car gripped up. The outcome, I don’t know. We worked hard. I’m pretty happy for my team. They needed a good finish.’’
But plate racing at Daytona and Talladega is very different from the rest of the season and Earnhardt knows he and the 88 team still have a lot to prove.
“This is not a true gauge on what the changes are going to do to our team,’’ he said. “The next couple racetracks will definitely give us a better understanding of where we are. … If we can go to Fontana, Vegas, be competitive at any point during them races, it would be a little more validation.’’
Sunday was a very good day, similar to the plate races of a few years ago when Earnhardt was considered the master of the draft.
“It was all a blur,’’ said Earnhardt, whose finish was reminiscent of his father’s last victory at Talladega, when he sliced through traffic and drove from 18th to first in the last 10 laps. “I was just going wherever they weren’t.
“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 the most fun he’s had on a plate track in a while.
“Yeah, I had a hell of a time tonight,’’ Earnhardt said. “When you got a good car, one that will make some moves and don’t wreck … I wrecked out of the last couple 500s. I figured, `What do I have to do to finish one of these things and finish it good?’ I might have been a little too careful (in the past), you know.
“Tonight, I just let it all hang out. If there was a hole in the middle, I went there, wherever it was.’’
That was good enough to give Earnhardt some much-needed momentum and his legion of fans some hope.
– Mike Harris can be reached at email@example.com Comments