Daytona Beach, Fla. • It’s been a decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lone Daytona 500 victory.
He’s come close so many times since, even finishing second three of the last four years, but has yet to make that coveted drive down pit road and into Victory Lane.
No one should be surprised to find him back there Sunday.
Forget that Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have won the first three Sprint Cup races during Speedweeks. Disregard that Richard Childress Racing has pole-sitter Austin Dillon, who is driving the No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt’s late father, as well as three other stout cars. Ignore that anything can and often does happen at Daytona International Speedway.
This just might be Junior’s year. The 39-year-old driver seems primed for his best season ever, and it starts at the track forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
“I’m excited about getting back out there,” Earnhardt said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can do and how our performance is going to be right off the bat. It’s going to be a fun year, I think. I think we’re going to enjoy ourselves. We did last year. We seem to get better every year, and hopefully that trajectory is still the same going into this season.”
Earnhardt was fifth in points last season, his best showing since finishing third in 2003. He had eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase, hitting his stride just a few weeks too late to catch Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson edged Kenseth for his sixth title in the last eight seasons.
Earnhardt was nearly as hot as those two down the stretch, and he’s hoping to find some carry-over into “The Great American Race.”
He won the 2004 Daytona 500, the first of his six victories that season. But he has just four victories since.
O NASCAR Sprint Cup Daytona 500, Sunday, 10 a.m. MST
TV • Ch. 13