Always a threat to win whenever the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rolls into Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will seek his third Harley J. Earl trophy in Sunday’s running of the 57th annual Daytona 500.
Here are three reasons why the third-generation driver and defending winner of the sport’s biggest race can get it done once again:
1. Rarefied Air
Only three times in the history of The Great American Race has a driver scored consecutive wins.
The last time it happened was two whole decades ago when Sterling Martin backed up his 1994 triumph with a trip to Victory Lane in 1995. If Earnhardt Jr. manages to cross the finish line first on Sunday, he will join a truly elite fraternity of back-to-back 500 winners featuring Marlin, Richard Petty (’73-74) and Cale Yarborough (’83-84).
Does the opportunity to be part of such a prestigious group make Earnhardt’s drive to win on Sunday any stronger?
Probably not — but it certainly can’t hurt it, either.
2. The Earnhardt/Daytona Legacy
There is no track anywhere on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule that means more to the Earnhardt family than Daytona International Speedway, the 2.5-mile house that NASCAR founder William H.G. "Big Bill" France built in 1958.
It was here that Junior’s father, the late Dale Earnhardt, became a staple of Victory Lane throughout his legendary career, only to fall short year after year in his quest to claim the biggest prize of all — the Daytona 500. Finally, in 1998, the seven-time series champion won the 500 in his 20th try — an accomplishment celebrated by virtually the entire NASCAR world, and much of the sports world.
Of course, it was also at Daytona that the elder Earnhardt tragically lost his life in a wreck on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 — a race in which Junior finished second to Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip. Since that fateful day, Earnhardt Jr. has won two Daytona 500s — in 2004 and 2014 — on top of a victory in the track’s July 2001 race, all while cementing his own legacy at the fast, high-banked tri-oval in Central Florida.
Junior’s enormous success in the 500, where he also owns four second-place finishes, has made the perennial most popular driver particularly adored at Daytona — and, rest assured, the driver of the No. 88 Chevy doesn’t want to let his untold legions of fans from "Junior Nation" down this year. Part of his excitement about last year’s win came in just knowing how much it pleased his fans.
"I don’t know that I realize how big a deal it is, but I know I got a lot of fans that are really happy, really enjoyed what we did tonight," he said after the 2014 running of the 500. "They can’t wait to go to work tomorrow to brag to all their buddies around the water cooler. Monday is going to be a fun day for a lot of people in Junior Nation."
3. Confidence On His Side
Despite entering the 2015 season with a new crew chief in Greg Ives along with three newcomers to his six man over-the-wall crew, Earnhardt Jr. has never arrived at the World Center of Racing carrying more confidence.
Fresh off a season when he won four races, made the Chase for the Sprint Cup and bore all the appearances of a legitimate title contender before bad luck came calling in the Chase Contender Round, Earnhardt Jr. rides a wave of momentum into 2015 that he hasn’t had in any of his seven previous seasons with Hendrick Motorsports, and has arguably never had in his entire Sprint Cup career.
Although Speedweeks got off to a rocky start for Earnhardt Jr. when he finished an unimpressive ninth in the Sprint Unlimited and then saw his car fail post-race inspection after clocking in 10th quickest in Daytona 500 qualifying, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that he will be a huge factor come Sunday. This much is certain: There is no event he wants to win more than NASCAR’s Super Bowl.
"It’s the greatest feeling you can have as a driver in NASCAR at a single event in a single day," Earnhardt Jr. said following last year’s victory in the Daytona 500. "It’s just hard to put it into words what winning this race really means you."