Dale Earnhardt Jr. parked the No. 88 Chevrolet after only nine laps Wednesday.
With the changes to the restrictor plate rules package, Earnhardt felt “more comfortable with this style” of racing compared with the tandem drafting that had occurred the past few years at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.
Given his comfort level and his past success at the track — two wins, eight top fives and 13 top-10 finishes — Earnhardt seemed more self-assured Wednesday. He acknowledged that he felt “more in control of what is happening” on the race track. He was “able to formulate a plan” to race to the front of the pack and take the lead.
“I would see something I wanted to do and try to go do it, and it would happen,” Earnhardt said. “That was a good feeling. 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.”
So could Earnhardt’s 129-race losing streak end in Sunday’s Daytona 500?
“I do feel like I have a better shot at winning in this current style of racing,” Earnhardt said. “I just want to win anywhere really. I just want to get that done so I can think about the next one. I want to get the streak over with and get back to Victory Lane.”
Junior was adamant Wednesday about just how desperately he wants to win — not just for himself but for his team, as well.
“We lost a million dollars by not being in the winner’s circle program last year for the company,” Earnhardt said of bonus funds that are distributed among NASCAR’S victors. “They could use that money. There are just so many benefits to getting in the winner’s circle.
“Not only will it help our team and validate what me and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) have been trying to do over the last couple of years. It is the Daytona 500, the biggest race of the season; it would be pretty spectacular for me personally to win it. It would do so many other things that I can’t list right now for the team and the company going forward. It would be awesome.”
Asked about winning the Great American Race, Earnhardt becomes reflective and somewhat melancholy. While his father raced for 21 years at Daytona before finally hoisting the Harley J. Earl trophy, Earnhardt Jr. won the 500 in his fifth attempt.
“Every time I see a replay of me and my crew celebrating below the flag stand, it all comes back so clearly,” Earnhardt said. “Every time I see that, I just think about how fortunate I feel to have won that race. Some of the greatest drivers come through this sport and don’t win it. It just doesn’t seem right, but only certain ones get that opportunity.”
Certainly, reaching that milestone so early in his career alleviated some pressure — but in racing, that’s only short-lived.
“I had no idea what winning that race would feel like until I won it,” Earnhardt said. “I didn’t know what to compare that to. When you win that race, it is really hard to explain. It’s just 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 matters; all your wants and needs, all the problems you have, little petty things that bother you; everything goes away. You just feel like you have realized your full potential. 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.”
Earnhardt still believes tandem drafting will inevitably win the race. And given the talent pool at Hendrick Motorsports, he’ll choose his partner wisely. But he also knows that with the relatively fresh pavement on the 2.5-mile track and a hard tire that doesn’t fall off, handling will be at a premium to be able to maintain control of the car throughout the race and have an advantage over the competition.
With the uncertainty associated with restrictor plate racing, Earnhardt believes that any driver inside of the top 35 could win Sunday. But few possess Junior’s innate ability — particularly when it comes to working with the draft.
“I think it is all instinct, or you make your decisions really right at the moment they happen,” Earnhardt said. “I wouldn’t know what to tell you if you asked me to form a strategy. I wouldn’t really know what to tell you to do if you were about to run the race. 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. There is no sure strategy that is going to keep you out of a wreck or having you lead the race off Turn 4.
“You just have to go throughout the race and hope you continue to make every decision right. Kind of like a line of dominos, you just hope everyone that falls hits the next one. Eventually, you come off the last corner and you are in position to try to make that last decision that is going to win the race. That is about it.
“I think you just have to have good instinct about drafting and what is happening around you, what people are doing and how you can use what somebody else is doing to help you. You have to be really selfish and always want to help yourself and always do what is going to help you, which is really not my personality, but for whatever reason, I’m pretty good at it. Hopefully, it will work out for us.”