There are plenty of top drivers and fast cars in this year’s race. All four of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas have been wicked fast, and so have defending race winner Joey Logano of Team Penske and his quasi-teammate Ryan Blaney of the resurgent Wood Brothers Racing.
But the favorite to win remains Earnhardt, who is driving his favorite Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, a car he calls "Amelia."
Last year, Earnhardt finished third in the Daytona 500, won the first plate race at Talladega Superspeedway and the second one at Daytona, then capped it off with a second place in the fall Talladega race. And he’s won two consecutive Can-Am Duel races. That’s an average finish of 1.50 in six races at the two tracks, all in Amelia.
"When you have a car that you know can do the things that this car can do, you’re willing to take those gambles and risks to pull out and pass and not worry about getting shuffled to the back because you feel like the car is really capable of doing what you’re going to ask it to do every time you make a move," said Earnhardt after winning his Can-Am Duel qualifying race on Thursday night.
Since 2010, Earnhardt has one victory, three runner-up finishes and five finishes of third or better in six Daytona 500 appearances.
"Dale Earnhardt Jr. and restrictor-plate racing go hand-in-hand," Gordon said. "If you look at how he’s raced, he’s been aggressive, he’s worked really hard to maintain track position. He’s had a fast race car, which helps."
The real secret might be that under the current superspeedway rules package, the lead is the place to be instead of how it was in years past, when the first car was a sitting duck helpless to fend off a pair of drivers teaming up in the draft to blow by.
And that’s where Earnhardt excels — he gets Amelia to the front quickly and once in the lead stays there. In his Duel, he got pushed hard on a couple of occasions but managed to hang on to the lead, scoring a convincing victory.
Earnhardt was fastest in Happy Hour Saturday and several other drivers have said he can do things they can’t.
All of which makes him the favorite on Sunday.
No one would be surprised if Denny Hamlin or one of the other JGR Toyota drivers wins, or if Logano repeats. And Blaney and a couple of others have looked mighty racy, too.
But right now, the smart money is on NASCAR’s hottest power couple: Dale Jr. and Amelia.