DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second in last years Daytona 500. He finished second in 2012. And in 2010.
By RANDY COVITZ
The Kansas City Star
The excruciating near misses have magnified the fact that its been 10 long years since Earnhardt won his only Daytona 500. As he approaches 40 years old, Junior realizes he could be running out of time in duplicating his victory of 2004.
You never forget exactly what that day is like, said Earnhardt, who beat Tony Stewart by 0.273 seconds in 2004. We come here every year and it all floods back to you as soon as you come back for Speedweeks.
Its very fresh, and youre constantly reminded by just what goes on during Speedweeks, how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again.
A year ago, Earnhardt did not lead a lap but was charging hard behind Jimmie Johnson, who beat him to the checkered flag by 0.129 seconds. In 2012, Earnhardt lost to Matt Kenseth; in 2010, Jamie McMurray won the potholed-delayed race; and in 2011, Earnhardt won the pole but was collected in a race-day crash.
You know, theyve all been close, Earnhardt said. But never in (any) of those races did I have a situation where I thought, I let it slip by. I messed up right there.
Most of the time, we run our guts out and come to the finish line and we just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race. When you make that move or have a chance and you dont do the right thing and you lose, thats difficult to swallow. Havent been in that situation even though weve run second, we still havent had that opportunity to pass the leader or make a move on the leader.
The victory at Daytona made Earnhardt and his late father, Dale, only the third father/son tandem to win The Great American Race, joining Lee and Richard Petty and Bobby and Davey Allison. It was the first of a career-best six wins that season.
But Earnhardts won just four times in 314 starts since the start of the 2005 season and only once at Michigan in June 2012 in the last five years.
Still, even without a win, Earnhardt finished fifth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup last year, largely on the strength of a career-best 22 top-10 finishes. Had the Chase rules implemented for this season been in effect last season, Earnhardt would have won the championship, although other drivers, including eventual champion Jimmie Johnson might have approached the season finale at Homestead a little differently.
We had a good season and a good Chase, a real good Chase, said Earnhardt, who finished second five times last season, three times to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson. It was the bonus points that hurt us the most. Not winning any races in the regular season and not carrying any bonus points into the Chase. The blown motor at Chicago was a big deal.
If we had some bonus points, and some sort of top-15 at Chicago, it might have been a totally different year for us.
If Earnhardt NASCARs most popular driver for 11 years running is to win more races and his first Sprint Cup championship, this may be his best opportunity for a while. Steve Letarte, his crew chief since 2011, is leaving after this season to become an analyst for NBC Sports, which begins televising NASCAR in 2015.
Steve is a great cheerleader and definitely built up my confidence and changed me as a race-car driver and as a person, Earnhardt said. Working with him has really helped me grow.
Letarte doesnt see his upcoming responsibilities interfering with the job at hand.
Im not working on being a broadcaster in 2014, Letarte said. Im working on filling a trophy case, and to do that we have to win our first race. Dale and I have had that conversation, and he said it the best, that this will give us an opportunity to really cherish those races and those opportunities.
A win in the Daytona 500 would guarantee the No. 88 team a spot in the Chase under the new system and take a lot of pressure off the rest of the season.
Yeah, that would be awesome to put a win behind you early and not have to worry about the stress of making the Chase and doing the math on the new format, Earnhardt said. Winning a race early would give you the opportunity to go for another win and go for multiple wins and try to build up those bonus points that I think are ever so important to win any championship.
To reach Randy Covitz, call 816-234-4796 or send email to email@example.com.