DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been 10 years ago since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scored the signature victory of his career in the 2004 Daytona 500.
That came during a period of Earnhardt’s career where his then DEI racing team ruled the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. His reign on those tracks was so impressive that the skeptics thought he had been given the “Golden Restrictor Plate” by NASCAR officials.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but time goes by pretty fast,” Earnhardt said. “It seems like these last several years have really flew by. Especially when you enjoy yourself. They seemed to grind out when you’re not running too well, but last couple of year have flew by pretty fast.
“I think that you never forget exactly what that day is like. We come here every year and you get sort of, it all floods back to you as soon as you come back for SpeedWeeks each season. It’s very fresh, and you’re constantly reminded I think by just what goes on during SpeedWeeks how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again. It’s definitely fresh.”
Those days have become part of NASCAR’s lore and Earnhardt’s mystique. But what followed were two long droughts in his career that led to self-doubt by the son of the late Dale Earnhardt. He remains the most popular driver in NASCAR and over the past few seasons has experienced resurgence in his career although he hasn’t won a race in his last 55 starts. His last victory came at Michigan in 2012.
In 2011, he made the Chase for the first time since 2007 and has been in the final group of drivers battling it out for the championship ever since. He finished seventh in 2011, 12th in 2012 and fifth last year.
Earnhardt starts ninth in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 in the No. 88 Chevrolet starting on the inside of the fifth row alongside Paul Menard.
“We have a good car,” Earnhardt said. “This car has a ton of preparation and time put into it compared to even the backup car. Hopefully we can deliver this car to the starting grid on Sunday because I think it gives us the best opportunity to win the Daytona 500. So just sort of going through the processes this week, trying to learn what we need to learn and trying to find what we can out of the car for additional speed. We were able to do a little bit of that yesterday in practice and in the evening. But otherwise, it’s been pretty uneventful.”
Earnhardt has experienced an improvement at the restrictor-plate tracks recently and has finished second in the past two Daytona 500s and second in three of the last four. He is attempting to finish one spot better than that on Sunday.
“Neither one of them were a win, but that is nothing to be ashamed of,” Earnhardt said. “I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence, and just in myself regardless of the car.
“I still feel like I do restrictor place race well, understand how the draft works rather well, and enjoy racing at them. You know, I hope that is always the case. It’s a different challenge every time you come back and that makes it enjoyable. The packages may change and maybe the package doesn’t change, but the dynamic weather and this track surface always changes, so the way you draft is always different no matter what.”
Earlier this week, there was some wild action in Wednesday’s crash-filled practice session, but Thursday night’s two Budweiser Duel at Daytona qualifying races were mostly green flag affairs until the final massive crash at the end of the second race that saw Clint Bowyer’s car do a complete flip before landing on its wheels.
Earnhardt is hopeful drivers will use their senses on Sunday to make it to the finish of 500 miles.
“I think just saying 500 miles changes everybody’s demeanor, and everybody’s approach to that race,” Earnhardt said. “Those wrecks in practice definitely surprised me and surprised a lot of people and I hope it’s just a product of a lot of cars just trying to get out of the draft, cars blending in, and cars put in a bad position that they could not get out of.
“I think definitely this package and the way it drafts is bringing things a lot closer together and making things where guys are racing double file more often. That is good and we need that and we definitely didn’t race enough in the Daytona 500 last year…. you couldn’t race because you would just go to the back and couldn’t risk pulling out because you just didn’t know and going to the rear was a likely result. So we really won’t have that this year and won’t have to worry about that because the bottom seems to be able to put together runs and that is going to make for a better race.
“We have been able to race side-by-side here forever and I think we can do it Sunday without any trouble and put on a great show.”
In recent years, Earnhardt and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports have displayed an innate ability to adapt to the restrictor-plate tracks even when NASCAR changes the rules. He believes that ability to change and adapt can help on Sunday.
“I definitely try to keep an open mind and try to understand how the packages and the changes, whether it be a little bit of spoiler or opening up the plate or closing the plate up, and how that does change the draft and the way you get runs and the way the car is going to react to runs,” Earnhardt explained. “And so you sort of pre-determine and pre-estimate what’s going to happen out there as you’re driving around the track. I feel like I do that well. And I feel like that’s been a part of my success at these places. Just trying to finish off the job has been a little bit difficult in the last several years, but we’ve still had some good runs and have been able to maintain our good track position throughout the races. When we’ve gotten good cars, we’ve been able to put them toward the front.
“You just have to have an open mind. What you learn when you first start racing at these tracks is important, but how it works is always changing and you’ve got to be ready for that. You can’t expect it to react at the exact same time every time you come back here. And how the car’s side-draft; they side-draft, for lack of a better word, they are a little more frustrating to side-draft with now.”