Ten Years After Daytona Win Jr. Still Fan Favorite
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It’s been 10 years ago since Dale Earnhardt, Jr. scored the signature victory of his career in the 2004 Daytona 500.
That came during a period of Earnhardt’s career where his then DEI racing team ruled the restrictor-plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega. His reign on those tracks was so impressive that the small group of Dale Junior Skeptics thought he had been given the “Golden Restrictor Plate” by NASCAR officials.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but time goes by pretty fast,” Earnhardt said. “It seems like these last several years have really flew by, especially when you enjoy yourself. They seemed to grind out when you’re not running too well, but last couple of years have flew by pretty fast.
“I think that you never forget exactly what that day is like. We come here every year and you get sort of, it all floods back to you as soon as you come back for SpeedWeeks each season. It’s very fresh, and you’re constantly reminded, I think by just what goes on during SpeedWeeks, how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again. It’s definitely fresh.”
Those days have become part of NASCAR’s lore and Dale Jr.’s mystique. But what followed were two long droughts in his career that led to self-doubt by the son of the late Dale Earnhardt. He remains the most popular driver in NASCAR and over the past few seasons has experienced resurgence in his career, although he hasn’t won a race in his last 55 starts. His last victory came at Michigan in 2012.
In 2011, he made the Chase for the first time since 2007 and has been in the final group of drivers battling it out for the championship ever since. He finished seventh in 2011, 12th in 2012 and fifth last year.
Earnhardt starts ninth in Sunday’s 56th Daytona 500 in the No. 88 Chevrolet, starting on the inside of the fifth row alongside Paul Menard.
“We have a good car,” Earnhardt said. “This car has a ton of preparation and time put into it compared to even the backup car. Hopefully we can deliver this car to the starting grid on Sunday because I think it gives us the best opportunity to win the Daytona 500. So just sort of going through the processes this week, trying to learn what we need to learn and trying to find what we can out of the car for additional speed. We were able to do a little bit of that yesterday in practice and in the evening. But otherwise, it’s been pretty uneventful.”
Earnhardt has experienced an improvement at the restrictor-plate tracks recently and has finished second in the past two Daytona 500s, and has finished second in three of the last four Daytona 500s.
He is attempting to finish one spot better than that on Sunday.
“Neither one of them were a win, but that is nothing to be ashamed of,” Earnhardt said. “I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence, and just in myself regardless of the car.
“I still feel like I do restrictor place race well, understand how the draft works rather well, and enjoy racing at them. You know, I hope that is always the case. It’s a different challenge every time you come back and that makes it enjoyable. The packages may change and maybe the package doesn’t change, but the dynamic weather and this track surface always changes, so the way you draft is always different no matter what.”
Earlier this week, there was some wild action in Wednesday’s crash-filled practice session but Thursday night’s two Budweiser Duel at Daytona qualifying races were mostly green flag affairs until the final massive crash at the end of the second race that saw Clint Bowyer’s car do a complete spin before landing on its wheels.
Earnhardt is hopeful drivers will use their senses on Sunday to make it to the finish of 500 miles.
“I think just saying 500 miles changes everybody’s demeanor, and everybody’s approach to that race,” Earnhardt said. “Those wrecks in practice definitely surprised me and surprised a lot of people, and I hope it’s just a product of a lot of cars just trying to get out of the draft, cars blending in, and cars put in a bad position that they could not get out of.
“I think definitely this package and the way it drafts is bringing things a lot closer together and making things where guys are racing double file more often. That is good and we need that and we definitely didn’t race enough in the Daytona 500 last year…. you couldn’t race because you would just go to the back and couldn’t risk pulling out because you just didn’t know, and going to the rear was a likely result. So we really won’t have that this year and won’t have to worry about that because the bottom seems to be able to put together runs, and that is going to make for a better race.
“We have been able to race side-by-side here forever and I think we can do it Sunday without any trouble and put on a great show.”
In recent years, Earnhardt and the rest of Hendrick Motorsports have displayed an innate ability to adapt to the restrictor-plate tracks even when NASCAR changes the rules. He believes that ability to change and adapt can help on Sunday.
“I definitely try to keep an open mind and try to understand how the packages and the changes, whether it be a little bit of spoiler or opening up the plate or closing the plate up, and how that does change the draft and the way you get runs and the way the car is going to react to runs,” Earnhardt explained. “And so you sort of pre-determine and pre-estimate what’s going to happen out there as you’re driving around the track. I feel like I do that well. And I feel like that’s been a part of my success at these places. Just trying to finish off the job has been a little bit difficult in the last several years, but we’ve still had some good runs and have been able to maintain our good track position throughout the races. When we’ve gotten good cars, we’ve been able to put them toward the front.
“You just have to have an open mind. What you learn when you first start racing at these tracks is important, but how it works is always changing and you’ve got to be ready for that. You can’t expect it to react at the exact same time every time you come back here. And how the car’s side-draft; they side-draft, for lack of a better word, they are a little more frustrating to side-draft with now.”
Side-drafting has become a tremendous tool for drivers who experience success in the restrictor-plate races because drivers have now discovered how to use airflow from a driver beside them to utilize the technique of drafting. The traditional style of drafting would be using the wake of air created by a driver in front of them, but with the current shape of the NASCAR spoiler, the wake can also be created when the cars are side-by-side.
The spoiler has been reduced to decrease downforce.
“You used to use a side-draft as an offensive move, where you would get up on the guy’s quarter panel and stall him out and it would give you a boost and you’d pull away like jumping a boat wake, and get out away from him so he could not do the same thing to you and you would make a pass,” Earnhardt explained. “That was how we used to use that with success. But now, there’s an extreme stall when you side-draft a guy and it really kills his car. But before you can get out and get away from him, it starts to kill your car and you sort of sit there and just fight on each other’s quarter panels until somebody tucks-in behind one of you and pushes you through. So that’s more frustrating. You’d rather just make the move on your own and move on to the next guy. But you’ve got to be open to those things changing. And when they do change, recognize it and understand it.
“The thing about it is that one of the things I hear from people who watch these races, and that I see myself and my spotter sees, is a car will get a run out of nowhere almost seemingly. We’ll be running along in the pack, and somebody in the middle of the pack will just find something draft-related that will just shoot their car up into a hole. You always could pre-determine what lane was going to move; how they were forming; how close they were together and you could almost pre-determine where you needed to be by seeing how people were lined up around you.
“But with this car, and the way we sort of get stuck side-by-side in the side draft, guys are sort of finding big gaps of air, and their cars are just getting these boosts out of nowhere and they’ll come running up on you. The other day in the Unlimited, I never knew the No. 9 (Marcos Ambrose) was on the outside of me, or trying to go to the outside of me. I wasn’t really paying attention to him because I didn’t think that him pushing me was keeping his car connected to mine. I didn’t think he had enough power to push me, and then pull out and go around me.”
Because of his personality and how it appeals to a different segment of fans, Earnhardt often does not get the credit he deserves for his thorough understanding of how to drive a race car. But it’s fairly obvious from his previous explanation regarding drafting and side-drafting that he truly is a thinking man’s race driver.
In this ever-changing sport drivers have to continually learn or they get left behind.
“You are always trying to learn, and every time I go out on the track, I want to be around a pack of cars that I can learn from every time we practice,” Earnhardt said. “Every time we practiced this week, I want to go out there and try to learn my car. Maybe we’ve changed something that makes my car do something it couldn’t do. Maybe it does something better or worse that I need to pinpoint. So I am eager every time we get an opportunity to go on the track to do that.
“As far as trying to win one of these races, or not run second again, I think we need to be up front. We’re not far enough toward the front. When we’ve run second; we’ve come from third, or fourth, or fifth, or sixth those last few laps. You are not going to win the race from back there. You might run second, but you aren’t going to win. You need to be leading the race.
“I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else.”
And just because he was once dominant at restrictor plate tracks, Earnhardt is pragmatic enough to know that it’s not a fair comparison from then to now.
“Those were different cars,” Earnhardt said. “Those cars were pretty amazing that I was driving back then. I will be honest. Those cars should have won. Those were pretty fast cars. I can’t take as much credit as I would like for how good those cars were back then, and how we had ourselves separated from the competition, I think.
“Under the current rule package, and strict guidelines with the rear shocks and springs; really there is no area that the teams are able to work in to set themselves apart from anybody. So everybody pretty much has the same car these days. It is a lot harder to win these races, and rightfully so. I definitely appreciate the challenge we have today. But if it were the same playing field, I would be asking myself a lot of questions. But it has changed so much since then.
“At least that is my story.”