Tony Stewart put his name in the victory column last Sunday at Sonoma Raceway. Is it Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s turn to step up and win his first race of 2016 this time around?
It just might be.
Earnhardt, driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is the defending winner of the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, where he has amassed four points race victories and 13 top-five finishes in 33 starts.
Ironically enough, the only other active driver with four points race victories at Daytona is Stewart, with all of the three-time champion’s wins coming in this race.
So far this year, Earnhardt’s fortunes at Daytona and Talladega, the two restrictor-plate tracks on the circuit, have not been good.
He crashed out of both the Daytona 500 and the spring Talladega race, destroying his favorite plate-track car, known as "Amelia" in the process.
Still, he welcomes a return to Daytona.
"Daytona is a good track for us, obviously," said Earnhardt. "We’ve got confidence going into the race. With the points situation, we need to get a nice cushion. We need to try to protect ourselves – just do what we normally do, run and try to win, and not give away chunks of points."
Earnhardt, who is 12th in points coming into Daytona, knows he needs a strong finish.
"We gave away probably 40 points total at the restrictor plate races this year – Daytona and Talladega – by spinning out," Earnhardt said.
"Had we run those races and finished reasonably, I’d say that would be about 40 points that we would be able to tack onto what we have today and that would put us comfortably in position to make the Chase."
But despite his struggles, Earnhardt comes into Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 as the favorite to win this race for the second year in a row.
Here are three reasons why Earnhardt will repeat again this year.
COMPETITION — In the Daytona 500, all five of the Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing were able to line up on the bottom of the track and stick together in the closing stages of the race, which was won by Denny Hamlin. That will likely be a lot harder to do on Saturday night, when the temperatures will be a lot hotter and the track a lot slicker than it was in February.
ODDS — While it’s true that the first two plate races of the season didn’t exactly go Earnhardt’s way, he rarely has two bad races in a row at Daytona. In each of the last four full seasons, Earnhardt has either won or finished second in one of the Daytona races. He’s due for a good run.
HISTORY — For his career, Earnhardt has 10 restrictor-plate track victories. No one else in the field has more than five. Like his late father, Junior is a master at plate tracks, which is a highly specialized skill. In four plate races last year, Earnhardt had two victories and an average finish of 1.75.