Runner-up finish bittersweet for Junior
February 24, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the third time in the last four years -- and fourth time overall -- NASCAR’s favorite son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., has finished runner-up in the Daytona 500.
And he’ll take that.
Eighth place with six laps to go and fourth place as the pack took the one-to-go white flag on Sunday, Earnhardt once again put on a drafting and passing exhibition with his No. 88 National Guard Chevrolet, thrilling the fans and setting his season off on the right foot.
“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.
"Hopefully we can keep the pressure on them and stay up in the top five in the points and win some races."
--Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“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.”
And Earnhardt is serious about that. After last year’s second-place finish in the Daytona season-opener, he only finished worse than 10th three times through June and a result worse than 15th once in that span.
He picked up his first win in four years at Michigan later in the summer and was leading the Sprint Cup Series championship standings by August. Although he qualified for the Chase and was even considered a front-runner, he missed two races recovering from a concussion and ultimately finished 12th in the standings.
In that case, it wasn’t about where the season ended, but how it started off.
NASCAR’s most famous stage, Daytona International Speedway, has always been Earnhardt’s playground. He won the 2004 Daytona 500 and 2001 July Sprint Cup race here and has six Nationwide Series victories on the 2.5-mile track.
He’s won three Daytona 500 qualifying races and a pair of Sprint Unlimited exhibition events too.
So it surprised no one, that when the checkered flag waved Sunday, Earnhardt was in contention to win. He hung around among the leaders all afternoon, but never led a lap, instead carefully negotiating his way through the field, plotting his ultimate strategy.
“I just went to where I needed to go all day long,’’ Earnhardt said. “You had to really pick and choose your battles and really be decisive on whether to go or not go on certain runs.’’
“I really don’t remember much -- except for the last lap -- of the rest of the race … anything we did, who we raced with even. It was a lot of fun, I had a good time.’’
“I was just trying to get the best finish I could,’’ Earnhardt said, smiling as he explained why he chose not to stick with his former driver Danica Patrick as a drafting partner in the final laps.
“I wanted to get in the media center to thank my crew and everything. Was just trying to get on the podium.’’
Like so many of his fellow competitors, the Daytona 500 remains the ultimate prize. And while coming this close this many times is encouraging, Earnhardt says there’s nothing like celebrating this victory.
“You just don’t know when you’ll ever get the opportunity again or if you’ll ever get that opportunity again,’’ Earnhardt said. “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.
“I felt so much relief when I did win it, I’m ready to do it again.’’
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