Daytona 500: ‘a foolish freakin’ race’

Terry Renna/Associated Press

Considering that pack racing is back, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has as good a chance as anyone to win Sunday’s Daytona 500 – “The Great American Race” that made a legend of his father.

By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Daytona frustrated and furious last July.

One of his favorite tracks, the place forever linked to his family name, had become a bore.

Junior disliked every aspect of the newfangled tandem racing at NASCAR’s superspeedways – the blind pushing, the feeling of not being in total control and the need for constant communication.

“It was a foolish freakin’ race,” he said after a 19th-place finish.

His outlook has changed considerably since. Between some NASCAR-mandated changes, results during testing and 54 wild laps in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, Earnhardt’s concerns have been alleviated.

Now, he might even be considered a frontrunner heading into today’s qualifying race and Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500.

“I do feel like I have a better shot at winning in this current style of racing,” Earnhardt said Wednesday. “I do feel more confident than I did coming down here and tandem drafting. I never felt really great about that. It is a completely different style of racing, and it’s not what I enjoyed.

“I definitely feel better about this.”

Still, Earnhardt and others believe tandem racing in the final laps will determine the outcome in the qualifying races and “The Great American Race.”

But not having to push, pull, sweat and swap for 200 laps around the high-banked track means everything to NASCAR’s most popular driver – and maybe even more fun to his legion of fans.

After all, Earnhardt won the 2004 Daytona 500 and has a dozen other victories at NASCAR’s most storied track. It’s also the place where his father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, won 34 races and died on the final lap in the 2001 opener. So Daytona has become synonymous with the Earnhardt legacy.

It always will be an important place for Junior, for better or worse. He knows it, and so does everyone around him.

And now that the racing has returned, at least in part, to the pack style Junior enjoys and seems to thrive in, it only makes sense that he would be a favorite again.

Nonetheless, he knows he needs good fortune to stay out front.

“I really wouldn’t know what to tell you to do as far as a series of moves or what kind of mind-set to have,” said Earnhardt, whose winless streak is at 129 races.

“I think you just have to have good instinct about drafting and what is happening around you.”

It worked to perfection in 2004, a victory Earnhardt still savors nearly a decade later.

“I had no idea what winning that race would feel like until I won it,” Junior said. “I didn’t know what to compare that to. When you win that race, it is really hard to explain. All the things that you want out of life and all the pressures you put on yourself or you feel from other people, all the things you want to accomplish; everybody sort of has this mountain in front of them that they put in front of themselves that they want to climb.

“For a moment, or for a day, you are at the top of that mountain.”

Nothing else matters, he said. Little things that can be bothersome are distant memories.

“You just feel like you have realized your full potential,” he said. “Everything is sort of just maxed out for the day. All the things that you wanted to achieve. Obviously you set a lot of goals for yourself, and that is just one of the goals. But just for a moment, just for that one day, whether it is 30 minutes or an hour after you cross that finish line, you feel like it can’t get any better than this.

“It is a pretty incredible emotion. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity to experience it. It is such a special moment.”

Those memories come flooding back every time he sees a replay of the race, especially the celebration. He would love to create a second version Sunday.

“Some of the greatest drivers come through this sport and don’t win it,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem right, but only certain ones get that opportunity.”

Most Read in Sports

Newsarrow

Sportsarrow

Arts & Entertainmentarrow

Opinionarrow

Columnistsarrow

Classifiedsarrow

Call Us

View full site


© The Durango Herald