Analysis: Dale Earnhardt Jr starts NASCAR Daytona 500 as favourite

Dale Earnhardt Jr has revitalised a NASCAR career that seemed to be in a long decline and starts Sunday's Daytona 500 as favourite. BRUCE MARTIN explains why

Analysis: Dale Earnhardt Jr starts NASCAR Daytona 500 as favourite

There was a period early in Dale Earnhardt Jr's career where he could do little wrong on the restrictor plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega.

From 2001-04 Earnhardt won two races at Daytona International Speedway, including the '04 500, and five at Talladega Superspeedway including four in a row from 2001-03.

Then from 2005, Earnhardt's career went into deep decline. Gone was the magic he displayed on the restrictor plate superspeedways, or any other racetrack for that matter. He began to experience self-doubt.

His second Daytona 500 victory in 2014 revitalised his career. It was the first of four wins that year and three more in '15.

He arrived at Speedweeks 2016 with a fast Hendrick Chevrolet and proved it by winning the first Duel qualifying race on Thursday night.

Earnhardt played out the final laps perfectly and made a race-winning 'slingshot' move out of Turn 4.

In Sunday's 58th Daytona 500 Earnhardt has the car, the team and the confidence to become a three-time winner of the NASCAR Sprint Cup's biggest race.

"The car is awesome," Earnhardt said. "I don't really get too confident, I don't want to get overly confident in what I'm doing. But the car really does everything I ask it to do.

"When you have a car that you know can do the things that this car can do, you're willing to take those gambles and risks to pull out and pass and not worry about getting shuffled to the back because you feel like the car is really capable of doing what you're going to ask it to do every time you make a move.

"It's just a fun car to drive - a really special car."

Autosport's 2016 NASCAR Chase picks

Earnhardt has even told team boss Rick Hendrick that the Daytona 2016 car "might be one he wants to put in a museum one day".

His Duel victory gives Earnhardt third in Sunday's starting line-up, and came on the 15th anniversary of his father Dale's death in a final-lap crash at the 2001 500.

"I was thinking about that," Earnhardt said. "I try not to make too big a deal.

"I've told all you guys in interviews how much I like people to remember dad. It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth.

"I'm guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning that race because of the day."

Many drivers feel NASCAR's rule changes in recent years have brought the art and skill back to restrictor plate racing after a period when many regarded it as a lottery.

Earnhardt was particularly unimpressed with the era of tandem drafting, but believes the current spec suits his style well.

"When we started this tandem stuff, it was like a tag team match. It felt so unnatural to run second by having to draft a guy that was going to win the race," he said.

"When that all went away, we got lucky that this package is similar to the '01 to '05 range, maybe even late '90s, where you have to look out for you.

"That's what makes this fun again. That's why you see the same guys up there, because they understand the mentality.

"Different styles work. Denny [Hamlin] and I are real similar. He's aggressive. Joey Logano, he's aggressive.

"But Matt Kenseth does well, and he's not quite as aggressive. He's real smart.

"It's a mentality where you just have to be a selfish jerk."

Earnhardt was the fastest driver in Saturday's final practice session with a lap at 197.131mph.

A win in the Daytona 500 will earn entry into NASCAR's Chase for the Championship. His father won seven Cup titles but Earnhardt continues to fight for his first.

"It's hard to win," Earnhardt said.

"Some guys have great careers without winning the championship.

"I think I've got some good years left to have the opportunity at it. We're working really hard to try to make that happen.

"We've just got to keep showing up and see if it works."

Autosport Race Centre Live will cover the 2016 Daytona 500 as it happens from 6pm UK time on Sunday

shares
comments
NASCAR Xfinity win no help for Daytona 500, polesitter Elliott says

Previous article

NASCAR Xfinity win no help for Daytona 500, polesitter Elliott says

Next article

Daytona 500: Denny Hamlin denies Martin Truex Jr in closest finish

Daytona 500: Denny Hamlin denies Martin Truex Jr in closest finish
Load comments
Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI Plus

Why NASCAR's most resilient driver has landed on his feet at 23XI

In a career that has had many ups and downs, Kurt Busch has been written off many times before. But facing career uncertainty after the sale of Chip Ganassi's NASCAR team, the 2004 Cup champion has found a new berth at Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan's 23XI organisation - which underlines his enduring value

NASCAR
Aug 31, 2021
The F1 nearly-man winding back the clock in NASCAR’s European cousin Plus

The F1 nearly-man winding back the clock in NASCAR’s European cousin

A multiple F3000 race winner, Marc Goossens was on the precipice of making Formula 1 in the 1990s - but a lack of budget left him without a path to the promised land. Turning to an illustrious racing career in sportscars, Goossens left the endurance circuit to try his hand at racing stock cars - and now calls the NASCAR Euro Series home

NASCAR
Jul 1, 2021
Why a British prospect is trying to make it in NASCAR Plus

Why a British prospect is trying to make it in NASCAR

There has never been a full-time British driver in the NASCAR Cup. But Alex Sedgwick, who is rising through the stock car ranks, wants that to change and could be a trailblazer for European talents to reach the top echelons of the NASCAR ladder

NASCAR
Feb 28, 2021
How Earnhardt’s death changed American motorsport Plus

How Earnhardt’s death changed American motorsport

It's 20 years since legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr died at the Daytona 500, but the legacy of his crash continues today through the pioneering safety work done by NASCAR

NASCAR
Feb 18, 2021
The NASCAR subplots to keep an eye on in 2021 Plus

The NASCAR subplots to keep an eye on in 2021

This weekend's Daytona 500 kickstarts a NASCAR Cup season that promises plenty of intrigue courtesy of new owners and a refreshed calendar. Here's what you need to know ahead of the new season

NASCAR
Feb 12, 2021
How a second-chance NASCAR ace is rebuilding his career Plus

How a second-chance NASCAR ace is rebuilding his career

From a disgraced NASCAR exile, Kyle Larson has been given a shot at redemption by the powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports squad. Replacing seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson is no easy billing, but Larson has every intention of repaying the team's faith

NASCAR
Feb 11, 2021
Autosport's top 5 NASCAR machines Plus

Autosport's top 5 NASCAR machines

The American stock car scene is more famous for its close racing and occasional punch-ups, but there have been some fantastic machines too. As part of Autosport's 70th anniversary celebrations in 2020, we picked out five of its best

NASCAR
Jan 3, 2021
Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started Plus

Why NASCAR's latest second-generation champion is just getting started

Chase Elliott's late charge to the 2020 NASCAR Cup title defied predictions that it would be a Kevin Harvick versus Denny Hamlin showdown. While the two veterans are showing no signs of slowing down, Elliott's triumph was a window into NASCAR's future

NASCAR
Nov 17, 2020