He took a slow lap around his car, inspecting every inch of the No. 88 Chevy that was parked in the bright Florida sunshine on pit road moments before the first qualifying race for the Daytona 500 on Thursday afternoon. Dale Earnhardt Jr. nodded his head slowly, as if he liked what he was seeing, then shook the hands of his car owner Rick Hendrick. Both smiled like they were about to have the time of their lives.
Similar scenes of drivers and car owners talking and laughing were playing out up and down pit road, but this one between Earnhardt and Hendrick was particularly revealing, because it showed that Junior now possesses something that he's lacked in recent years: confidence.
"Dale is different this year," one of his crew members told me on Thursday. "He's as confident as he's ever been. He's in his second year with [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and he knows he's got a great car. We're all feeling really, really good about our chances."
Certainly, a second Daytona 500 win by Earnhardt, voted the sport's most popular driver for nine straight years, would be a dream scenario for NASCAR. As a crewman for Tony Stewart told me on Friday, "A win by Earnhardt is a win for the sport. He's the rare guy who can even get non-race fans to pay attention to NASCAR. It would be huge for everyone."
NASCAR has a myriad of other intriguing storylines as its 64th season kicks off. Five-time champion Jimmie Johnson will look to get his mojo back after seeing his string of consecutive title seasons snapped last year. Danica Patrick will make her first Daytona 500 start in a season in which she'll run 10 Sprint Cup races and drive in the majority of the Nationwide events. Defending champion Tony Stewart, who captured last season's points race after edging out Carl Edwards in a tiebreaker (more Chase victories), hopes to win back-to-back titles for the first time in his career. And the list goes on and on.
Even when Earnhardt was suffering a crisis of confidence -- the years of 2009 and '10 come to mind, when he finished 25th and 21st, respectively, in the final standings -- he was fast at Daytona. He held the lead in both of those races and he nearly won in '10, finishing second after passing more than a half dozen cars on the final lap in a stirring flourish of driving.
Earnhardt learned the art of restrictor-plate racing from his famous father, who once claimed that he could "see" the air of the draft. Earnhardt won't make that boast, but he's as good as anyone in the sport on the plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega, where he has seven career wins.
Here's how the 54th running of the 500 will play out on Sunday. For the first two-thirds of the race, the cars will run in congested packs. Due to the offseason changes NASCAR made to the radiators and front grilles on the restrictor-plate cars, the drivers can no longer break away for extended two-car drafts because the engines will overheat. But because the cars can go about five to 10 mph faster in the tandem draft, the drivers will gamble in the closing laps and pair up like Stewart and Kyle Busch did in this month's Budweiser Shootout.
Yet this is dicey; not only could engines blow, but also if a car is also pushed too hard on the left rear bumper the driver will lose control and a big wreck will ensue. Why? Because the rear spoiler is shorter than it was last year, so the cars don't have as much rear downforce and thus don't grip the track as tightly.
Earnhardt relishes old-school pack racing -- this was the style of racing at Daytona when he won the 500 in 2004 -- but he also flourishes in the two-car draft. He pushed Johnson to victory last season at Talladega and on Sunday I expect him to team with Johnson again late in the race. They'll likely make their move to the front with three laps to go.
This is when the Earnhardt magic will return to Daytona -- the site of Earnhardt's worst day of his life and also his greatest victory. It says here that he'll narrowly beat Johnson to the finish line to win his first race since 2008, a drought that stretches back 129 races.
"I just can't imagine the racing getting more competitive than it is or what it is going to be this week," said Earnhardt, who finished second to Stewart in his qualifying race on Thursday. "I would hate for anyone to miss that because I think it's going to be pretty epic."
Here are four other drivers who should be in contention for the checkered flag as the laps wind down on Sunday afternoon.
1. Carl Edwards
Last Sunday Edwards won the pole for the 500, an achievement that means very little for the Great American Race but everything for his season. Edwards ended last year tied atop the point standings with Stewart, but lost the championship on the tiebreaker of most Chase wins (Stewart had five; Edwards zero). As I noted in this week's issue of the magazine, a fast start to the 2012 season is critical for Edwards and his No. 99 team, because if they falter out of the gate, the emotional drain of coming so close in 2011 could sap the collective energy of the team.
So capturing the pole was especially important for Edwards. He may not even lead the first lap -- he could conceivably get freight-trained back to 20th by the time he crosses the start-finish line the first time, which is why starting from the pole is fairly insignificant at the restrictor-plate tracks -- but it proved that this team is still very much operating at the height of its powers.
"This shows that everybody went back to work hard and they brought the best race car that we could here," Edwards said after winning his first career pole at Daytona.
In 14 career starts at the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Edwards has zero wins, led only four laps and had an average finish of 17.9. But this is the fastest car he's ever had at Daytona, and a win on Sunday would be the perfect tonic to wash away the heartbreak from last fall.
2. Tony Stewart
Stewart, the three-time Cup champion, has only one glaring omission on his racing résumé: a Daytona 500 victory. He has a total of 17 career victories at Daytona -- the second most in history, behind Dale Earnhardt's 31 -- and he took the checkered flag in his qualifying race on Thursday, but Stewart has been snake-bitten in the 500. Several years he's had the fastest car, but he's never had the racing luck (re: avoiding the Big One and equipment failures) it takes to win this event.
That could very well change on Sunday. He nearly won this month's Bud Shootout, but was passed by Kyle Busch about two football fields before the finish line and came in second. Stewart has said that he learned his lesson and won't allow that to happen again if he's in a similar position on Sunday afternoon.
"I've got a couple ideas in mind [for doing things differently at the end of the race], but I don't want to share them," he said. "I might need them for Sunday."
3. Jeff Gordon
Still one of the top plate racers in NASCAR at age 40, Gordon is always a threat at Daytona. He has six career wins at the famed track and has led 589 laps -- the equivalent of 1,472.5 miles.
Gordon has been uncharacteristically quiet during Speedweeks. On Thursday he finished eighth in his qualifying race, but don't be deceived: Gordon excels at avoiding the big wrecks, and he's been cautious this week to preserve his car for the 500. Gordon says he has three or four years left "in the tank" to win this race. So I expect him to drive with far more aggression and a sense of urgency on Sunday. Look for him to hook up with Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne late and roar though the field in the closing laps.
4. Kyle Busch
If there was any doubt who possesses the most raw talent in NASCAR, that question was definitively answered in the Bud Shootout, when Busch had two of the most breathtaking saves you'll ever see at nearly 200 mph. Put simply, Busch can handle a loose race car better than anyone else in NASCAR, which is the reason he won the Shootout.
Busch has dominated stretches of races at Daytona, but he's never taken the checkered flag in the 500. He's a popular pick in the media center, and if he's near the front late, he's shown during Speedweeks that he has as much power under the hood as any other driver.
"It takes a whole lot of luck [to win the 500]," Busch says. "You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right moments and not get too anxious at times and not get yourself messed up by missing your pit box or something like that. When it comes down to the last five, four, three, two, one lap -- it's just craziness. There are cars that are trying to go everywhere and make moves that they probably shouldn't, including me ... That's what makes it the Daytona 500."