Junior finishes 2nd after late charge at Daytona
Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the podium between Mark Martin and Danica Patrick.
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 showcase events.
''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 father.''
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 tragedy.
''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 Daytona.
So it was no huge surprise to see him near the front late in the race.
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 a move.
It came during the final 2 1/2 miles. And with help from Martin.
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 post-concussion symptoms.
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 championship.
''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 previous car.
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 in 2010.
''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 happening.''
Maybe Earnhardt even will end up taking center stage.