Will Dale Earnhardt Jr. change his mild-mannered ways?
He might have to under NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format. If a win paves the way to an automatic playoff berth, a take-no-prisoners strategy could serve Earnhardt well.
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"I haven’t wrecked anybody to win a race in a long time," Earnhardt said. "But we haven’t won any races either. I definitely wouldn’t want to wreck anybody to win a race, but when it comes down to it, you want to win no matter what and you’re not worried about who’s in the other car.
"You got to do whatever it takes to win aside from just putting a guy in the fence. That wouldn’t be a difficult situation for me at all. I wouldn’t think twice about it."
Despite not winning a race last year, Earnhardt would have won the title under NASCAR’s new Chase system. The 39-year-old driver of the No. 88 Chevy hasn’t visited victory lane since the June Michigan race in 2012. His drought has stretched to 57 races — or 55 starts after he was forced to sit out while recovering from a concussion two seasons ago.
But with 16 Chase positions up for grabs after the 26races, Earnhardt believes the entire field will alter the way they approach competition and there will be a greater emphasis on winning.
"I think it’s going to change a little bit about everybody’s driving style when it comes down to trying to get wins," Earnhardt said. "When you think about it, you could think about a lot of different races last year. I’ll use an example — a random example would be (Matt) Kenseth and Kasey Kahne at Bristol last year. That was a situation where Kasey may have done something different under the current rules package we’re going to have this season.
"I think you definitely would have seen a different outcome to that race, maybe a little more aggression in that situation."
After finishing second three times in the last eight races of 2013 — and posting a third-place run at Homestead-Miami Speedway following an epic battle with Kenseth, Earnhardt insists no one was laying back in the season finale.
"I don’t know if we can run any harder than we were last time we were there," Earnhardt said. "I was running my guts out — I know Matt was too. I know the 11 (Denny Hamlin, winner) was. That was fun. We had a lot of fun that day. I remember going into turn two passing the 11 and 2 on the outside when they were getting together. We were all running our guts out. That was exciting for me. That race was exciting for me."
With crew chief Steve Letarte is leaving the No. 88 crew at season’s end, it’s the last opportunity for the pair to go out as winners. Over the last three seasons, Letarte has witnessed Earnhardt "manage the race better." He believes the team has the potential, but "must win to be considered a champion contender. There’s too many good cars not to."
On Friday, Earnhardt topped the speed chart (198.421 mph) in the first practice of 2014 — for Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway. Denny Hamlin’s lap of 199.867 mph was the fastest of the 18 cars in Happy Hour. Still, it was clear that Earnhardt’s confidence has not waned since last season, particularly here at Daytona where he has finished second in the last two 500s.
Earnhardt knows he has the cars. He knows he has the team. Now, he simply must close the deal and win.
"I’m excited about getting back out there," Earnhardt said. "We’ve got some new rules and things like that. We had new rules at the beginning of last season, too, and we seemed to adjust to those pretty well. I’m just looking forward to getting out there and seeing how we can do and how our performance is going to be right off the bat.
"It’s going to be a fun year, I think. I think we’re going to enjoy ourselves. We did last year. We seem to get better every year and hopefully that trajectory is still be the same going into this season — we’re going to improve on what we did last year and that will be fun. It will be an entertaining season for me."