Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the podium between Mark Martin and
He was right in the middle, for sure, but far from center stage
at Daytona – again.
Earnhardt used a last-lap charge Sunday to finish second in the
Daytona 500 for the third time in the last four years, another
runner-up performance that left NASCAR’s most popular driver
clamoring to get back to Victory Lane at one of auto racing’s
”It’s like a drug, I assume,” said Earnhardt, who also
finished second in 2010 and 2012. ”It’s such a high. You just
don’t know when you’ll ever get that opportunity again or if you’ll
ever get that opportunity again. I knew before I won in 2004, I was
reserved to the idea I may be trying to win this race my entire
career because I knew all too well how that was for my
Jimmie Johnson held off Earnhardt to win the Daytona 500 for the
second time. Martin was third, a solid showing for a part-time
driver. Patrick was eighth, the highest finish for a woman in 55
years of NASCAR’s premier event. She also became the first woman to
lead laps in ”The Great American Race.”
Earnhardt sat between them during post-race interviews,
listening to Martin talk about his relationship with 50 Cent and
hearing Patrick answer countless questions about making history as
a female driver.
Earnhardt’s run was just another oh-so-close finish at Daytona,
where his family name is forever linked because of triumph and
”I felt so much relief when I did win it,” Earnhardt said.
”I’m ready to do it again. It’s been too long. Running second over
and over is great and all for our team, a good start to the season.
Even having to go through all the hassle that Jimmie is about to go
through this week, it’s worth it.”
The second-place finish turned around what had been a lackluster
Speedweeks for Earnhardt, whose famous father died during a
final-lap crash at the Daytona 500 in 2001.
Junior qualified 19th for the race, his lowest starting spot in
14 years at the Daytona 500. His confidence remained high, though,
possibly because he was glad to be rid of the clunky Car of
Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved
So it was no huge surprise to see him near the front late in the
But instead of taking risks and pulling out of line in hopes of
taking the lead, he simply waited for the right opportunity to make
It came during the final 2 1/2 miles. And with help from
Their crews agreed to team up on a late restart with six laps to
go in the 200-lap race. They swerved under Patrick and sped past
Greg Biffle, but couldn’t get by Johnson.
”Obviously I knew Junior had a fast car and is one of the
masters here, certainly would trust his judgment,” Martin said.
”If things would have got crazy enough, maybe we could have got
the big trophy.”
They settled for the podium.
”I think it’s important to get a good start points-wise,”
Earnhardt said. ”It’s important to put a good foundation of points
together. If you get behind early, it seems like you’re still
chasing that Chase spot at Richmond.”
Earnhardt made the Chase for the championship last year, but
finished 12th after missing two of the final six races because of
Nonetheless, running in the top five in points most of the
season and spending a few weeks atop the standings provided a big
boost for an ultra-popular driver trying to win his first Cup
”We’re a good team,” he said. ”Hopefully we can keep the
pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win
some races. I want to really try to win some more races this year.
That’s our focus.”
The redesigned car could be the key to making it happen.
Earnhardt managed just two wins over the last six years in the
Of course, it could be weeks, maybe months, before Earnhardt
knows how his No. 88 Chevrolet will stack up in 2013.
Eventually, though, he would like to drive it back to Victory
Lane at the Daytona 500.
He hated the racing at Daytona in recent years, first
complaining loudly that the track needed to be repaved and then
really hating the resulting tandem racing after it was resurfaced
”I liked it,” he said. ”I think that the package is really
good. The surface is still relatively new, which provides tons of
grip. If we had the old surface with this car, it would have been
an incredible race, people sliding around, wearing tires out, just
trying to dig as hard as they could. We’ll get to that as the track
ages. I’d hate to see them messing with the car to get a better
package because the track is in good shape.
”It’s down here next to the beach. It will wear out and age
quite rapidly compared to some other tracks that have been repaved.
As the track changes, the tire will ultimately change and be able
to wear and you’ll see guys moving around, different things
Maybe Earnhardt even will end up taking center stage.