Dale Earnhardt Jr. is trying to accomplish something that hasn’t happened in NASCAR since, well, last year.
Still, winning both races in one season at Daytona International Speedway – February’s Daytona 500 and Saturday’s Coke Zero 400 – is a rare feat in the sport. Jimmie Johnson did it in 2013. But it hadn’t happened prior to that since 1982, when Bobby Allison won both races.
“It’s tough to do,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt enters Saturday’s race in strong form. He’s won twice this season – assuring him a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup – and is third in the points standings behind Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Johnson. He has five consecutive top-10 finishes, including a victory at Pocono in June.
It’s a sustained stretch of excellence that Earnhardt is enjoying. It is also Earnhardt’s final season with crew chief Steve Letarte, who heads to the television booth in 2015.
“I am just thrilled with the way the team is competing, obviously,” said Earnhardt, who will start seventh Saturday. “I know we have been doing some great work since the beginning of the Chase last year and maybe even a little bit before that.
“It’s as good as I have ever run at Hendrick and maybe even (with his previous team, Dale Earnhardt Inc.) – consistently.”
That hasn’t always been the case for Earnhardt, who once went 143 races between victories.
“That has been the tough part for me over my career, to sustain momentum and get ourselves running well for a long period of time,” said Earnhardt, who turns 40 in October. “We would start off great, then have a terrible summer, then end well. It just never was complete. So it seems that this team is as good as it’s ever been and hopefully we can maintain it.”
The season obviously got off to a stellar start with Earnhardt’s victory in the Daytona 500. Earnhardt said both races at Daytona – and the run-up to them – have different personalities.
“They are both similar physically to win,” Earnhardt said. “It’s the mental picture that the Daytona 500 gives you and the pressure that comes with that spectacle. There are so many people here, and just the driver’s meeting alone will set the tone and take you out of the race and intimidate you if you let it. There is so much happening, so many people on pit road, and you are being thrust in front of all these people to shake hands.
“You just want to think about the race and get in your car and you don’t want any distractions, so you are just kind of struggling through that in the pre-race. It won’t be like that for the 400. It will be a typical weekend. The Daytona 500 is just so crazy before the race and that just gives you a different feeling and makes you understand how big that race is and how many people must be paying attention to what is going on at the moment.”
Earnhardt won’t drive the same Chevy in which he won the 500. It’s in the Daytona 500 Experience museum adjacent to the track, where each year’s winning car is displayed.
“An Earnhardt winning in Daytona is huge, period,” said Johnson, who won the Daytona double last season on his way to his sixth Cup title. “We can break down multiple other reasons why it would be meaningful and impactful for everybody involved. If I don’t have a chance to win the race, I wouldn’t mind if he did.”