Dale Earnhardt Jr.: The lead is the place to be
February 20, 2014, Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service, NASCAR.com
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows exactly where he wants to be in the closing laps of Sunday's Daytona 500.
He wants to be up front, without question.
If that seems obvious, remember that the lead hasn't always been the best place to be when approaching the checkered flag in the Great American Race.
But Earnhardt is weary of runner-up finishes -- he has run second in three of the last four season-opening races -- and he'd prefer to take his chances from the top spot in the running order.
"As far as trying to win one of these races, or not run second again, I think we need to be up front," Earnhardt said Thursday during a question-and-answer session with reporters in the Daytona International Speedway media center. "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're 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."
Earnhardt doesn't think the wild wrecks that interrupted Wednesday's first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series practice constitute an indicator of the nature of Sunday's race.
"I think just saying '500 miles' changes everybody's demeanor and everybody's approach to that race," Earnhardt explained. "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 trying to get out of the draft, cars blending in and cars put in a bad position that they couldn't get out of."
Was it one of the series regulars? Nope.
Was it a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series regular, such as Kyle Busch or Dale Earnhardt Jr.? Wrong again.
Then it must have been one of the nine talented series rookies trying to earn starting spots in Saturday's Drive4COPD 300 at Daytona International Speedway. No, that's strike three.
The driver who paced the field in Happy Hour was ARCA veteran Bobby Gerhart, who is attempting to qualify for the NNS race in his No. 85 Chevrolet.
Gerhart's proficiency in the draft shouldn't come as a complete surprise. After all, the 55-year-old driver has won the season-opening ARCA race at the 2.5-mile superspeedway eight times.
NASCAR's new qualifying system, which will debut Friday, also should benefit Gerhart, who failed to make the field for last year's Nationwide Series opener at Daytona under a single-car-run time trial format.
This year, drivers will establish qualifying speeds in a group draft, and that should help Gerhart make the show.