The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first return visit of the year this weekend, as it heads back to Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400.
And for Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., it’s a chance to become just the sixth driver in history to win the Daytona 500 and the July Daytona race in the same season.
The list of drivers who’ve swept Daytona is impressive: Fireball Roberts (1962); Cale Yarborough (1968); LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969); Bobby Allison (1982); and Jimmie Johnson (2013).
Earnhardt is in the midst of what could be his best season ever, winning multiple races for the first time since 2004 and leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with nine top-five finishes, just one shy of his total for all of last season. There’s no question that Earnhardt is feeling it this year.
"Sitting in meetings and being around him as close as I am with our situation of the No. 48 and No. 88 being in the same shop, I see a guy that knows his race car better than ever; and a guy that’s focused on all the details," said Johnson of Earnhardt.
Johnson likes what he sees with Earnhardt’s improvement.
"He’s thoroughly involved, is much more open and communicating on a far deeper level than I’ve seen him, especially when he started at Hendrick Motorsports," said the six-time champion. "As my years go on, teams slow down when the communication stops. And his team has gotten faster and faster and he is more talkative and involved and engaged and sits in meetings with notes and setup sheets. He’s really in the game."
"It just seems like the communication is more open, he (Earnhardt) is sharing more, and I think he feels like he has cars and a team that are capable of winning on a weekly basis," agreed Jeff Gordon. "I think his driving is showing."
Daytona is one of Earnhardt’s best tracks. He has three points race victories here, as well as 11 top-five and 17 top-10 finishes. His average finish of 13.379 is second in the series to the 12.500 posted by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in far fewer starts. And Earnhardt’s 450 laps led at Daytona trail only Tony Stewart (665) and Gordon (621) among active drivers.
Of course, part of Earnhardt’s success might be a sense of urgency. This is the last year Steve Letarte will be his crew chief before moving to the television booth next year.
"We all know that the driver/crew chief pairing is the most important part, and Steve and Junior have hit it off," said Johnson. "And there’s no guarantees that next year’s crew chief is going to be able to connect with Junior and create the same speed in the cars. … I’m sure he’s trying to take advantage of opportunity."
And he will again under the lights at Daytona on Saturday night.