Dale Jr. talks strategy, tradition in Daytona return
July 02, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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The last time Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at Daytona International Speedway he was busy becoming a Twitter phenomenon, inventing the Victory Lane "selfie" and, oh yeah, winning the Daytona 500.
With the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series shifting south to the birthplace of American stock car racing, Earnhardt finds himself in the midst a five-race stretch of supremacy that rivals the start of his 2014 campaign, when he burst out of the gate with the Daytona win and a pair of runner-ups at Phoenix and Las Vegas. This recent string of solid results has resulted in an average finish of 5.0 and includes his first career win at Pocono and top-five at Sonoma, where the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet hadn't fared well in the past.
It's another reminder that Earnhardt is enjoying perhaps his best season to date and looks like one of a select few drivers among the championship favorites at this point of the season. With another statement finish in Saturday's Coke Zero 400 powered by Coca-Cola (7:30 p.m. ET, TNT) he could further cement his title-contender status.
"I'm looking forward to it," Earnhardt said Saturday night after his fifth-place finish at Kentucky Speedway. "Daytona in July, man. Great weather, kind of a laid-back weekend. Hopefully the cars are sliding around a little bit and we're driving them a little bit in this race. … I've won there before, but you love going there. Such a great place. You get a great feeling in your heart when you go there as a driver and as a person involved in the sport. It's just a beautiful facility and a lot of great history there. I really appreciate that about it and that's what makes me look forward to going there."
While the 2.5-mile Daytona track is sometimes viewed as one of the easiest to drive, mainly because of the minimal braking and steering, Earnhardt explained that the aging surface is starting to create a more challenging driving experience -- but also a better race.
"Every time we go back to Daytona, we anticipate the asphalt sort of giving up more and more and hopefully giving us a bit of a challenge in the corners" he said. "The race itself, even though we've won the Daytona 500 and we've been successful there, the race itself is a challenge and hopefully one that we can succeed at. It's not easy to win those plate races with the way the package works now. You've really got to be out front late and we can't be coming down pit road and giving up track position. We've got to figure out a way to where we're in the lead when there's no more pitting to be done. ... It seemed like in the 500, we had enough race car to really hold off anybody to battle for and keep the lead. We need that lead late in the race instead of being back there, stuck in a box, sort of, in traffic."
One of Earnhardt's only missteps this season came at fellow restrictor-plate track Talladega Superspeedway where -- despite leading the second-most laps -- he finished 26th after a late stop for fuel doomed the Hendrick Motorsports driver.
Having learned from that mistake, he and crew chief Steve Letarte will likely have a different strategy come Saturday and be ready to roll into Victory Lane once more.
"I know we circled that one on the calendar because of the mess that we had in Talladega and how I chose to run that race," Earnhardt said, "So I've got a point to prove when I go back to Daytona, I'm going to drive it up in there and see what happens."