Is Today the Day for Earnhardt?
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on February 23, 2014 | 7:23 A.M. EST
Dale Earnhardt Jr. last won a NASCAR Sprint Cup restrictor-plate points race before Jimmie Johnson won any of series titles. (Photo: Getty Images)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Can it be? Is it true it has been 10 years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won a NASCAR Sprint Cup restrictor-plate points race? Back before Jimmie Johnson had won any of his six championships?
It doesn’t seem possible. Earnhardt is often one of the favorites in restrictor-plate races. But it’s true, he hasn’t won points plate race since 2004.
“Definitely know he’s irritated by not winning,’’ Johnson said of his teammate.
The Daytona 500 has been most perplexing for Earnhardt, who won this race 10 years ago. He’s finished second three of the last four years.
“Certainly being able to win it is tough, but to think about the same driver finishing second three out of four races at the Daytona 500, that’s awfully hard to accomplish,’’ said Fox analyst Larry McReynolds.
Earnhardt again enters today’s race as among those to watch even with Joe Gibbs Racing winning the preliminary events and Richard Childress Racing showing a lot of speed. One can never count Earnhardt or his Hendrick Motorsports teammates out at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway.
There once was a time when Earnhardt was nearly an automatic to win. Or his teammate Michael Waltrip. Both dominated restrictor-plate racing from 2001-04 at Dale Earnhardt Inc. Earnhardt won at Daytona in the first Sprint Cup race there after his father’s death in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt and Waltrip combined to win three out of four Daytona 500s.
“A lot of that was in the cars,’’ said Tony Gibson, who was a crew member on Earnhardt’s team then and now is Danica Patrick’s crew chief. “A lot of that was in the engines.’’
Said Earnhardt: “I will be honest. Those cars should have won.”
Waltrip said that success came from the culture of DEI. Restrictor-plate racing had mattered to DEI’s namesake and it mattered to each employee. Earnhardt and Waltrip combined to win 10 of 16 points races at Daytona and Talladega from 2001-04.
“It was a special time,’’ Waltrip said.
Then things and rules changed. DEI’s advantage was gone. Eventually, DEI was gone.
“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,’’ Earnhardt said. “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.’’
It’s more challenging to make moves and get to the front. Even there it’s difficult to be in a position to make a move for the lead.
In the 2010 Daytona 500, Earnhardt went from 10th to second on the final green-white-checkered restart but watched Jamie McMurray win. In the 2012 race, Earnhardt was third for the final restart and couldn’t move into second until just before the finish and never had a chance to take the lead from Matt Kenseth. Last year, Earnhardt went from fourth to second on the final lap of the 500 but couldn’t make a move on Jimmie Johnson, who won.
“We run our guts out and come to the finish line and we just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race,’’ Earnhardt said of his recent runner-up finishes in the 500.
Today brings a new opportunity.
“I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence,’’ Earnhardt said.
And that he does today.