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Junior Thinks Good Thoughts Of Senior At Daytona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 19 2015

Dale Earnhardt Jr. choses to remember the pre-Black Sunday good times. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Strong men still are moved to tears at Daytona International Speedway on Feb. 18, the day in 2001 when we lost Dale Earnhardt.

Fourteen years after “Black Sunday,” Wednesday of Speedweeks 2015 was filled with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice laps, a press conference and all the things that are part-and-parcel of being Dale Earnhardt Jr. The day officially began at 8:52 a.m. with a tweet, a social media function that didn’t exist when seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt died of injuries suffered in a crash in Turn 4 on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

“On this day I do not mourn his death. I thank God he lived,” Junior tweeted, later downplaying the emotional aspect of the anniversary.

“That (message) was sort of pulling some ideas from George Patton’s quote that I liked,” said Junior, referring to the World War II hero. “And when Dad passed away, that’s kind of the way that I felt about it. Like you feel kind of selfish mourning that loss because you’re just like, ‘What am I going to do or how am I going to go forward or how does this make me feel?’ That’s real selfish.

“His loss affected a lot of people, not just myself. At the same time, you’re fortunate to have known him and fortunate to have learned and have the experiences that you had with him. So you think about those and be glad that was an opportunity you got to experience. So, I’ve just seen a lot of people tweeting and talking and I just felt like pitching-in and let people know where my mind was at. Instead of being sad about it, I think about all the awesome times we had and good things we did and stuff that I think he’d be proud of today.”

Cap E died at approximately 5:16 p.m. (EST) on Feb. 18, 2001 when an untimely tap in traffic on Lap 200 of the Daytona 500 sent his trademark black No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo up the 2.5-mile track’s 31-degree banking and into the Turn 4 concrete wall. Earnhardt, 49, died from a basal skull fracture, the result of a series of events that a panel of investigators hired by the sanctioning body said included the angle of impact, contact with a second car and a torn seat belt.

The perfect storm of events that day included Michael Waltrip’s first Cup victory in his initial start for car-owner Earnhardt at Dale Earnhardt Inc., as well as Junior’s second-place result. Tragically, hired-gun Waltrip and favorite son “Junebug” never got to celebrate with Earnhardt in Victory Circle.

All these years later, Junior drove through the infield tunnel and into the motorhome area at DIS last week as defending event champion, and a two-time winner of the “Great American Race” his namesake won only once.

“Yeah, I’m glad we won,” said Junior, driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS. “It feels good to come back to any race where you’ve won. You’ve got a little confidence as a driver but once you get in the race and get started, it really doesn’t matter.”

Junior won NASCAR’s so-called “Super Bowl” last year with crew chief Steve LeTarte, who since has exited Hendrick Motorsports for a career in television. Greg Ives now is calling the shots for Junior, who admittedly grew accustomed to reading LeTarte’s inspirational race day notes.

“Greg and I haven’t got further enough along for me to know the comparison between the two,” Junior said. “Communication seems to be real easy, whether we’re talking face-to-face or through text or whatever. It’s coming along really easy. He’s got a genuine interest in what I’ve got going on and vice-versa. He’s a real easy-going guy. I know he’s not Steve and I don’t expect him to be like Steve exactly.

“He’s definitely not the cheerleader that Steve is, but at the same time, we got all the guys on the whole team on a group text we’ve had for a while. We did that with Steve, just so everybody stays in touch with everybody and knows what’s going on.

“We had a little trouble in qualifying and he (Ives) was a little disappointed in himself. So we had a little rah-rah text session for about 30 minutes with all the guys pitching-in and getting everybody fired-up and he’s good at that. He’s very vocal and believes in the team and speaks his mind. You’ve got to rally the guys and he knows he’s part of the leadership of this team and knows he has to be vocal and let those guys know where he’s at. So I think that’s important that he knows that and that’ll help us a lot.”

Junior will start 25th in Thursday’s first Budweiser Duel at Daytona (7 p.m. EST, FOX Sports 1) after NASCAR’s Garage Police determined the ride-height on his car was too low following Sunday’s Coors Light Pole Qualifying extravaganza. As a consequence, Junior’s speed during a 10th-place finish was disallowed. Pole-winner Jeff Gordon and No. 2 qualifier Jimmie Johnson – Junior’s HMS teammates – locked-up the front row during controversial group qualifying for the race’s 57th edition on Sunday.

Although not locked-into the 43-car field, if one of the following drivers ahead of Junior in 2014 owner points – reigning Cup champion Kevin Harvick, Ryan Newman, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski or Matt Kenseth – finishes in the top-15 in a Duel, Earnhardt will advance into the 500.

Earnhardt reiterated his Chevy is bad-ass fast. “I think the goal is to win the race,” said Junior, eighth in 2014 owner points. “I’ve have that sort of discussion going on in my head ever since we got through qualifying. You don’t want to tear the car up but the goal is to go out there and win the race. It just feels wrong to worry more about keeping the car in one piece than winning an event. You’re in that event to compete and to win. Even though the car that’s in the trailer (backup) is probably not as good, it’s still competitive and can win the race on Sunday if we need to run it.

“Again, it just feels unnatural to worry more about that. I think you get yourself in trouble mentally when you’re out there not making the right choices to try to be competitive and move toward the front. I think if you want to do well in the race and not find yourself in trouble, you do what your instincts tell you _ to try to win. Trying to stay out of trouble, you find yourself in trouble most of the time.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, February 19 2015
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