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Dale Jr. aims to follow Johnson, sweep Daytona

July 03, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com

Johnson: "An Earnhardt winning in Daytona is huge, period."

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. will try to become just the sixth driver to sweep NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Daytona International Speedway Saturday night when the track hosts the Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola.

Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat last year, winning the season-opening Daytona 500 as well as the 400 in July. His sweep ended a 30-year run of futility among Daytona race winners -- before Johnson, the last to capture both events was Bobby Allison in 1982. 

Earnhardt Jr. led six times for 54 laps, including the final 18, en route to winning this year's 500. It was his third-career victory at the historic 2.5-mile track. 

That few have managed to win both races in the same season isn't lost on Earnhardt Jr., who enjoys the rich history of the sport.

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"I would love to sweep the races … because that is a cool thing," he said Thursday at DIS prior to the start of practice. "But I just love winning here. So to go to Victory Lane here, regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me." 

He is of the series' more successful restrictor-plate racers with eight of his 21 career victories coming at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway. He's enjoying one of the best years of his career, and certainly his best since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008. In addition to his Daytona win, Earnhardt Jr. also won earlier this year at Pocono, and he has more top-five finishes this year than any other driver. He is third in points, trailing leader and teammate Jeff Gordon as well as Johnson. 

Earnhardt Jr. would also like to make amends for a disappointing 26th-place finish at Talladega earlier this year. Strategy, which plays such a big part in determining winners and losers in NASCAR, worked to perfection for the No. 88 team at Daytona. That wasn't the case at Talladega, where a fuel-only pit stop dropped him back in the field and kept him pinned there.

It was, he said, "embarrassing."

"The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete," he said. "I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us.

"I lost sight of the overall … picture, what you are out there trying to do, who all is out there depending on you to do it. ..."

Lessons were learned.

"And you are never too old to learn them," he said. "You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year."

Johnson, a six-time champion looking for his fourth career win at Daytona, said "an Earnhardt winning in Daytona is huge, period."

While he said he's more focused on his own No. 48 team, Johnson said he expected his teammate "to be fast."

"He's going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win," Johnson said. "That (sweep) stat went 30 years for a reason -- it's not easy because in plate racing anything can happen.

"He's the one who gave me that phrase about if (you) can make it to the white (flag), and you're in the finish line picture, you have a shot at winning. If he can make it to the white, he will definitely be a threat." 

Judging by his comments Thursday, Earnhardt Jr. doesn't plan to go quietly into the night on Saturday. Daytona and Talladega reinforced the importance of track position in a plate race. And what measures might be necessary to take to keep it. 

"You had to run extremely aggressive (when) side drafting and try to box them in on the fence," he said.

"You wanted to make it really hard on them to take a position away." 

He understands, he said, "that if I get put in that position again … you're going to have to play some pretty hardcore, cut-throat racing."

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