All eyes on Dale Earnhardt Jr. as he seeks history in Daytona 500
There is certainly no shortage of great storylines for the 59th running of the Daytona 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m., FOX).
• Will Denny Hamlin become the first driver to win consecutive Daytona 500s since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95?
• Does second-year driver Chase Elliott pull off the trifecta of Daytona 500 pole, Can-Am Duel 150 victory and Daytona 500 win?
• Will Roger Penske win a third Daytona 500? His drivers, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, have been fast all through Speedweeks.
• Can Michael Waltrip pull a miracle out of his hat and win his third Daytona 500 in his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race?
• Will the Toyotas be able to work in lockstep as they did last year to win the race and take four of the top five spots?
• Is Stewart-Haas Racing ready to win in its first Daytona 500 with Ford power?
Each of those is a compelling storyline, certainly, but for millions of race fans there’s only question on the top of their minds: After missing the entire second half of the 2016 season because of a concussion, is Dale Earnhardt Jr. ready and able to win the Great American Race for a third time?
The early returns certainly are encouraging.
In qualifying, Earnhardt put the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet on the outside of Row 1 with a lap of 192.864 miles per hour. Earnhardt missed the pole by just 0.002 seconds to Hendrick teammate Elliott.
And in his Can-Am Duel 150 qualifying race, Earnhardt led 53 of the first 58 laps before getting hung out in the draft with 2 laps to go and finishing fifth.
It doesn’t appear Earnhardt is rusty at all and he certainly has a good car.
But even he acknowledged the JGR Toyotas and the Team Penske Fords are going to provide stiff competition.
“From the performance standpoint over the last couple of years, Brad (Keselowski), (Joey) Logano, any of the guys in those Toyotas from Gibbs are going to be up there, going to be working together,” said Earnhardt. “They’re going to be hard to beat. That’s where I think the standard is right now, where those two teams are.”
During Saturday’s final Happy Hour practice Earnhardt had mixed feeling about his car’s performance.
“I thought our car was a little better yesterday in practice,” Earnhardt said after practice. “In the pack, it would develop runs a little bit better, it just seemed like I had to get a little luckier today with what was happening behind me, where yesterday the car would do some things or develop some things kind of on its own.”
Earnhardt said the team also fixed a minor vibration during Happy Hour.
“Otherwise it’s been really uneventful, we haven’t had any issues or problems with the car mechanically and nothing happened on the race track, so it looks like we are going to get this thing on the grid tomorrow and ready to go,” he said.
But win or lose, Earnhardt’s competition certainly has welcomed him back to competition.
“He’s just really energetic and really open and honest and is really cool to be around,” said Michael Waltrip when asked about Earnhardt. “He’s always been cool to be around if you know him, but it seems like he’s opened up to the world more, and so to see him go out there and win a race, I’d like to see that happen.”
“I know he’s excited about racing still,” said Martin Truex Jr. of Earnhardt. “He obviously still loves it and wants to do it and hopefully things will all work out for him.”
Sunday afternoon, we’ll see if Earnhardt can make history at Daytona. This much is for certain: There will be a lot of eyes on the No. 88 Chevrolet as Earnhardt chases a third Daytona 500 victory.