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The next chapter of 'The Earnhardts at Daytona' could be a happy one

He was hanging out in the drivers lot at Daytona International Speedway, leaning back in the passenger's seat of a golf cart that was parked a few feet away from his towering motor home. The start of this year's Daytona 500 was only minutes away, but now Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- relaxed and reflective -- tried to put into perspective what the famed track meant to him.

"I like coming here and I don't like coming here," Earnhardt said in February. "I've got so many different feelings about this place, so many memories. I loved coming here as a kid and watching my daddy race and going to the beach with my friends, but you know, now it can be hard."

The next chapter in the evolving story of "The Earnhardts at Daytona" will unfold this weekend at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. On Friday night in the Nationwide race Little E will pilot the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy, the same sponsor and same car number his father made famous in his younger years. Ever since Dale Sr. died in a last lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500, Junior has debated whether or not he should drive a car with that iconic No. 3 plastered on the sides and the hood. He doubts he'll ever do this again. "This is a one time deal," Earnhardt says. "I have no intentions of making it a habit to run special paint schemes with my dad's number every year, and I'm pretty sure this will be the last time I drive No. 3. It's my dad's number. We are borrowing it to honor him, and I hope the fans remember him when they see this blue-and-yellow car on the track.

For Little E, though, the more important event this weekend will be the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night. Back in February in the Daytona 500 Earnhardt stormed from sixth to second on the final lap, and, for my money, this remains the most impressive one-lap display of driving to date this season, for his best finish of 2010. And now Earnhardt returns to Daytona on a mini-hot streak.

After Earnhardt struggled at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and finished 19th on June 6, he was 16th in the standings and was 87 points out of 12th place. But now he's recorded three straight 11th place finishes or better, including an eighth-place run in New Hampshire last Sunday, and Earnhardt is in 13th place in the standings and trails a rapidly fading Carl Edwards (who came in 25th in New Hampshire) by only three points for the final spot that advances to the Chase. As of right now, you've got to like Earnhardt's chances to make the playoffs.

"We've been working very hard and sometimes it just bears fruit," Earnhardt said after he got out of his car in New Hampshire. "That's what's been happening for us."

On Saturday night I like Earnhardt to end his 74-race winless streak. As he showed in February, Little E is as good as anyone in the sport at restrictor-plate racing. In fact, don't be surprised if he pulls the double and reaches Victory Lane in both races this weekend. Dramatic tales, both triumphant and tragic, have a way of unfolding for Earnhardts at Daytona, and this weekend may well add to the family's mystique at NASCAR's most famous track.

Here are five other drivers I'll be watching on Saturday night in the Pepsi 400:

1. Jamie McMurray McMurray has emerged as an elite plate racer, winning two of the last races (and coming in second in the other) where restrictor plates are inserted into the carburetors to restrict air flow into the engines and therefore limit top speeds to about 205 mph. This is almost a make-or-break event for McMurray. Currently 17th in the standings, he still has an outside shot at qualifying for the Chase, but a top-five run on Saturday is a must, especially considering that he hasn't finished higher than 15th in his last four starts.

2. Jeff Gordon Gordon is always a threat to win at Daytona, where he has six career victories. He has struggled at the superspeedway in recent years, he hasn't cracked the top 10 in his last five starts, but Steve Letarte, his crew chief, strongly suggested last weekend that Gordon on Saturday night will be driving the fastest car he's had in long time at Daytona. Plus, even though his recent finishes haven't been stellar, Gordon has led laps in each of his last six races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval.

3. Carl Edwards Like all the drivers for Roush-Fenway Racing, Edwards is in a massive funk. His handling is off and his horsepower is down. Over the last five weeks he's dropped from tenth to 12th in the standings and now is in danger of missing his first Chase since 2006.

Can he turn his season around on Saturday night? His average finish in his last two starts at Daytona is 6.5 and he has three top-five runs in his last six races at the track. But Edwards will be the first to tell you that, unless RFR makes big gains on the intermediate-length tracks ASAP, even if he wins on Saturday night he won't make the Chase. 4. Jimmie Johnson After winning the last two races on the schedule, at the round course in Sonoma, Ca., and 1.058-mile oval in Loudon, N.H., Johnson can afford to take chances at Daytona. Why? Because even if he wrecks and has a 30th or worse place result, Johnson, who's now second in the standings behind Kevin Harvick, will still make the Chase. So expect Johnson to be very aggressive as the laps wind down and he goes after win number six of 2010.

5. Kurt Busch Busch continues to impress this season. He finished second behind Johnson last weekend in New Hampshire and is now sixth in the standings. But that's a little deceiving, because right now, based on how everyone has been running in recent weeks, it's pretty clear that that there are three leading contenders for the championship this season: Johnson, Denny Hamlin, and Busch.

Busch still believe he needs a tick more horsepower to win the title, an assessment that it has to hard to disagree with, especially after Johnson clearly possessed more straight-line speed than Busch in Loudon, and he also needs to collect another checkered flag or two before the Chase starts. After all, Johnson and Hamlin have five wins this season (which translates into 50 bonus points that each will carry into the Chase) while Busch only has two victories.

Can he notch win number three on Saturday night? Busch is an underrated plate racer. He's never won at Daytona, but he's finished in the top five in the five of the last eight races at the superspeedway. I think he'll be among the leaders as they barrel into the last turn on Saturday night.

My pick to reach the finish line first? Earnhardt.

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