You would think Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be focused on the race at hand: Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. After all the last time the NASCAR Sprint Cup series was at the iconic 2.5 mile speedway, Earnhardt basked was basking in the glow of his second win in NASCAR’s biggest race, the season opening Daytona 500.
You’d be wrong.
Instead, Earnhardt’s thoughts Thursday were on the season’s second restrictor plate race at Talladega Superspeedway. In that race Earnhardt hung back late in the going. As a result, he came home an unexpected 26th.
“It was embarrassing man,” Earnhardt said Thursday. “I hate to talk about it. The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is just really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us. I lost sight of the overall big picture, what you are out there trying to do, who all is out there depending on you to do it, and what you need to do. I learned some lessons and you are never too old to learn them. You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year. “
That lesson according to Earnhardt was one of selfishness.
“I never took into account...,” he said. “I was just out there really thinking about me, and what I thought, and what I wanted to do, and how frustrated I was. I forgot that there was a team behind me, and depending on me. Lot of fans there to see us race, showed up to spend hard-earned money, so it was a difficult thing to go through.”
Now, however, Earnhardt has a chance to do something very few have done at Daytona sweep both races at Daytona.
“Jimmie (Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson) did it last year and before that it was Bobby Allison who did it around ’82 or ’83 or something,” Earnhardt said. “It’s tough to do, especially the way the package is now. It’s real hard to get by the leader and we know that pretty well now from the way we ran in Daytona earlier this year.”
“I really haven’t gotten a chance to see how this car is going to respond to the track,” he added.” I am certain it’s going to be competitive, but knowing it’s not the same car though; we are going to have to see if it has any different characteristics in the balance. It’s a lot different surface temperature than we had in February so we have to figure out how that is going to affect the way a car drives and if the balance of the car is going to be different.”
Unlike Talladega, Daytona requires a bit more input from the driver, something Earnhardt said he welcomes.
“Getting handling to come into play would be a bit more fun,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully the surface is starting to age a little bit and we will see when we get out there, but I don’t anticipate it being a whole lot different in the change over time.”
Earnhardt was 32nd in the first practice Thursday. The second practice was washed out due to lingering rains from Hurricane Albert which was moving quickly to the north and is not expected to be a factor Saturday night. One thing that will be however is the difference between the February race and the one Saturday night. The February race was clearly on Earnhardt’s mind Thursday as he compared the two.
“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. “
“I don’t know if the viewers are any different, I am sure they are for the 500,” he added. “And you imagine that as a driver. But all those things really take a backseat once you get in the car. I mean I remember when we were running there at the end and just how nerve-racking all those restarts were. That is much more of a bigger deal in the Daytona 500. But winning here regardless, it’s a great feeling.“