It's been years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a non-factor during Speedweeks. He finished second in the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona...
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It’s been years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a non-factor during Speedweeks.
He finished second in the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona 500 last year. He was the pole-sitter for the 500 in 2011, the 10-year year anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona International Speedway. He started second and finished second in 2010, weaving his way through traffic in a frantic final lap.
He typically garners headlines and the majority of the attention leading up to NASCAR’s “Great American Race,” an event forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
The 2004 Daytona 500 champion turned the fast lap by averaging 198.592 mph around the 2 ½ -mile superspeedway Saturday. David Gilliland was second, followed by Clint Bowyer, Marcos Ambrose and Aric Almirola.
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Pole-sitter Danica Patrick and Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Tony Stewart were among 10 drivers who skipped the 1 ½ -hour final tuneup. Patrick is trying to become the first driver to win the Daytona 500 from the pole since Dale Jarrett in 2000.
This year, Earnhardt has been a mere footnote.
He qualified 19th for Sunday’s Daytona 500, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at NASCAR’s premier event. His confidence remains high, possibly because he’s glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
“We’ve got a good car,” Earnhardt said. “Anybody can win, but we’ve got a good piece. If we get that balance right and get the thing to turning good, we’ll have a great shot.”
Early results say otherwise.
Earnhardt wrecked several cars during a Daytona test in January. He didn’t lead a lap in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited last week and finished eighth in what boiled down to a 12-car field. He was off the leaders’ pace in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday and came home ninth.
Those race results tend to be an indicator of who’s the one to beat in the Daytona 500.
So it’s no surprise that Kevin Harvick, Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Patrick have gotten more hype than Earnhardt.
Then again, anything can and often does happen in the Daytona 500.
With a completely revamped race car for 2013, the same could be said for the season.
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.
“I think we were in the conversation last year,” Earnhardt said. “Really excited about how consistent we were last year. We’ve been able to improve as we’ve worked together. We’ve been able to improve steadily over the last couple years. I hope that’s able to continue.
“I hope we haven’t realized our true potential. Maybe this year, if we can step it up another notch, we’d be right there where we’ve been striving to be the last couple years. It isn’t going to take much to improve over last year and be one of the top teams. We were pretty close last year and feel pretty good about that.”