NASCAR

Is Dale Jr. poised for successful 2012?

Junior on his second-place finish in the Daytona 500
Junior on his second-place finish in the Daytona 500
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Holly Cain

Holly Cain has covered racing in all its forms for 21 years, winning multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors and Society of Professional Journalists for feature and news writing. She chronicled NASCAR Champion Rusty Wallace's final season, authoring a book called "Rusty's Last Call." Follow her on Twitter.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.

Through multiple rain delays, a historic prime-time television slot and a bizarre mid-race fire, what seemed like the “three days of the Daytona 500” finally concluded early Tuesday morning with a near-perfect ending.

daytona 500 action

IT'S A BLUR

See the best photos from the 2012 Daytona 500:

NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., juked and jived in the final few hundred feet to finish runner-up to one of his close friends, Matt Kenseth.

While finishing second is never as good as finishing first, for Earnhardt Jr. it must feel like a winning way to start the 2012 season and was easily the best showing of his multi-champion four-driver Hendrick Motorsports team.

After running among the top five for much of the rain-postponed, five-plus-hour marathon race, Earnhardt made a bold move to overtake Kenseth’s Roush Fenway Racing teammate Greg Biffle, who was running second, on the last lap and came only a car length (two-tenths of a second) shy of nipping Kenseth at the finish line for what would have been Earnhardt’s first win since 2008.

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ALL-STAR RACE

Celebrities head to NASCAR tracks to fill their need for speed.

“You know, you do want to come in here and make sure the press knows that you wanted to win the race, because the press are going to tell the fans what you thought, and you don't want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I'm not,” said Earnhardt, who drives the No. 88 Diet Mountain Dew Chevrolet.

“But I am happy with the points I got tonight, because it is a tough hole to climb out of, and this new system really makes it a little different and makes you uneasy.”

It was Earnhardt’s second runner-up finish here in three years and third overall (also 2001). He has five top-five finishes in 12 Daytona 500 starts, highlighted by his 2004 victory.

“I’m not frustrated at all, I promise; I’m in a great mood,’’ Earnhardt said. “I run second here a lot though, so I know that I don’t feel it right now, but I know later tonight and tomorrow and the rest of the week it’s going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race. So that is kind of frustrating.”

It is also encouraging. While Earnhardt is NASCAR’s biggest star, he has struggled to deliver the wins and championship-contending seasons he and his massive legion of fans expect. He finished seventh in the 2011 championship, which marked the first time he qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs since 2008. But he hasn’t won since summer 2008 and, before Tuesday, had only nine top-five finishes in the three years since.

His showing in the Daytona 500 also marked a rare time when he was the top Hendrick driver, besting his teammates — five-time champ Jimmie Johnson, four-time champ Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne – and is perhaps a good omen for Earnhardt.

“We'll go to Phoenix with a good attitude, and we feel like we can go to Phoenix and run well, so we'll see how it goes,” Earnhardt said.

“I'm very happy. I'm really in a good place.”

Tagged: Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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