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An Earnhardt And No. 3 Back in Victory Lane

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 2 2010

The Wrangler No. 3 with an Earnhardt at the wheel made it back to Victory Lane Friday night. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Aboard a car carrying the number made famous by his father, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in the Nationwide Series event at Daytona on Friday brought back emotional memories – and might help resurrect his career after a prolonged slump.

“I do think this helps us, because the new Nationwide car is like the COT,” said Earnhardt Jr., looking forward to Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race. “I called (Sprint Cup team owner) Rick Hendrick and told him, ‘We’ve got another tank in the truck and we’re bringing it out tomorrow.'”

The victory also gave a boost to crew chief Tony Eury Jr. After deciding to leave his job directing Earnhardt Jr.’s Sprint Cup entries at Hendrick Motorsports midway in the 2009 season, it was Eury Jr.’s first victory with his cousin since a Sprint Cup win at Michigan during their first year at Hendrick in 2008. But the moment belonged mostly to the return of No. 3 to victory lane at Daytona.

“We lost everything here,” said an emotional Eury Jr. shortly after the race, referring to the fatal crash of Dale Earnhardt Sr. in Turn 4 on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. “To come back and do this with that number it means everything.”

Earnhardt Jr. said it was a relief to score a win on this occasion, moreso than a celebration. “Tonight I didn’t have the typical reaction you would from a victory. It was so much relief and satisfaction. I didn’t have the jubilance or this explosion you have when you win. I was so happy for everybody else.”

That included those involved in putting the No. 3 together along with the classic blue and

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates after Friday's victory. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

yellow paint scheme from the mid-1980’s. The list included the owner of the team where

Earnhardt Sr. won six of his seven titles aboard No. 3, Richard Childress, who has declined to use the number in the Nationwide or Sprint Cup since then. The list also included Earnhardt Jr.’s stepmother Teresa Earnhardt and his sister Kelley. The latter helped put the deal together for JR Motorsports.

“It was a real emotional win. It was for, to honor my father, but also his fans,” said Earnhardt Jr. “They were so supportive of him and still are today.” The support showed in the three-fingers-aloft salutes from many in the grandstands.

But Earnhardt acknowledged winning was like a tonic for him, too. “Victory lane it’s like a kid when you have a treehouse or you and your buddies have a clubhouse,” said Earnhardt Jr., “That’s what victory lane is like for me. I like going there and you miss it really bad. But you know it’s there and you can get back there again if you try really hard. Every time I win I just really soak it up like a sponge, because I’ve had a trying time over the past several years and sure I’d like to get back to where I can win multiple races a year, but that’s not where I’m at right now.”

It was also an opportunity for Earnhardt Jr. to answer his critics. After Teresa Earnhardt suggested in a Wall Street Journal story that he was as interested in being a celebrity as a race car driver shortly before the his split in 2007 from the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team owned by his stepmother, Earnhardt Jr. has been dogged by the perception that his slump has resulted from not focusing enough on racing.

“I want to say I’ve worked my ass off to get back to sub-par,” he joked before turning serious again. “I can’t drive and work any harder than I am now,” he said. “I’m doing it. You can’t do this sport half-ass or you’ll get eaten up.” He later added, “I’m not burn out. There’s still a lot in the tank. I still have the passion.”

The passion for driving a car with the number 3 on the side, however, is over, in the Nationwide Series or in the Sprint Cup. “I will not do it,” he said of the stress of trying to balance the involvement of so many others in the effort. “I won’t change my mind.”

“I really wanted to run this paint scheme, because I always thought it was a pretty cool-

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his late father's team owner, Richard Childress. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

looking car,” he continued. “That’s all that mattered to me.” But the amount of attention paid to the fact the Chevy carried the number made famous by Earnhardt Sr. caught him by surprise.

“Everybody else was saying, ‘The 3 is back!’ When I started hearing all of that I thought, ‘This is a lot of pressure! This is a big deal.'”

There were portents of a major victory for Earnhardt Jr. from the time he qualified his No. 3 Chevy in starting position number 3 on Friday. That was shortly before qualifying ended and rain began to fall like a benediction. Once the rain cleared up and the track dried, the No. 3 began to look like a contender midway in the first race for the new Nationwide chassis modeled after the COT but with some aerodynamic differences due to a different body style.

In an historic field that included Ford Mustangs and Dodge Challengers, it was the blue-and-yellow Chevy Impala that came on strong in the second half. “The second stint he really started moving up to the front in the high groove,” said Eury Jr. “At that time I said, ‘OK. we’ve got us a car that can win.”

With a classic move in Turn 1, Earnhardt Jr. took the lead on the 70th of 100 scheduled laps, side-drafting past the Toyota of Kyle Busch on the outside. Shortly afterward, the night’s third caution sent all the cars down the pit road. The JR Motosports crew got the No. 3 off the pit road first and Earnhardt Jr. held the lead until the heavy crash of Paul Menard brought out the final caution due to scattered debris.

Headed into a green-white-checkered finish, instead of the potent Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Busch and Joey Logano plotting behind him to work together, the caution period split them up. Busch elected to pit for four fresh tyres, leaving Logano in third behind the No. 3 Chevy at the final re-start. Busch was too far back to be a factor on what was to be the final two laps.

“I radioed Joey that he should help me break free to get us in single file and then after that it was up to him,” said Earnhardt Jr., who had Kevin Harvick’s Chevy starting alongside him on the front row.

After Earnhardt Jr. and Logano broke free, it appeared that Logano – with drafting help from the Ford of rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – would have a shot at overtaking the leader. But he looked high when Stenhouse looked low heading into Turn 3 on the last lap, so a bump-draft never materialized. “I ended up pushing Earnhardt Jr. more out front,” said Logano, who confessed, “Not a big enough run (down the backstraight).”

But the driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing entry said he wasn’t pulling any punches to sustain the momentous occasion. “It’s Daytona. I don’t care if people don’t like me for winning at Daytona.”

The victory gave Earnhardt Jr. six Nationwide Series – four for cars entered by Dale Earnhardt Inc. and two for Richard Childress, who was listed as the official team owner in Friday’s victory for the car built by Hendrick Motorsports and crewed by JR Motorsports. It also moved Earnhardt Jr. one victory closer to his father’s record of seven Nationwide wins at Daytona.

“To win anywhere means a lot,” said Earnhardt Jr. “Daytona is always a special place for me, because my father died here. I’m always connected. I’ll always love this place the rest of my life, regardless of what the track history is.”

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 2 2010
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