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Dale Jr. not contemplating what could have been at Daytona 500

He smiled, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew what was coming. Finishing second in the Daytona 500 has its perks but also its demons.

"I'm in a great mood,'' Earnhardt said in the early-morning hours Tuesday after finishing the bizarre race. "But I know later tonight and tomorrow and the rest of the week it's going to eat at me what I could have done to win the race. So that is kind of frustrating.''

Earnhardt, though, won't have long to contemplate what might have been. With NASCAR back on the track Friday at Phoenix, he'll be focused on what's ahead, not what's behind.

Two years ago, when Earnhardt also finished second in the 500, his demeanor after the race was more cautious.

Then, Earnhardt was asked if the runner-up result could provide the momentum to end what would become, and continues to be, a four-year winless drought. He noted how the true gauge of his team would come in the following races.

That fact remains, so one has to be careful about reading too much into a Daytona 500 performance, but Earnhardt's confidence level is high enough that he can enjoy -- and be frustrated with -- a second-place finish.

"We'll go to Phoenix with a good attitude, and we feel like we can go to Phoenix and run well,'' Earnhardt said.

Attitude is key for Earnhardt. His improving disposition is a reflection of second-year crew chief Steve Letarte. Part cheerleader, part coach, part friend, Letarte has provided peace of mind with fast race cars. The pair won the pole for last year's Daytona 500 in their first event together, before Earnhardt was collected in a late-race accident.

It was the following week at Phoenix that would prove to be big. After struggling earlier in the weekend, Earnhardt finished 10th and walked out of the garage after the race grinning. It was a step forward for a driver whose confidence fluctuates more than the stock market. The result and good feelings afterward helped spur Earnhardt to a strong start and near-victories at Martinsville and Charlotte in the following months.

Earnhardt's confidence is higher this year after making last season's Chase. He still seeks a win to end his 130-race winless streak but it only seems a matter of time before it happens.

Even he sensed it shortly after arriving in Daytona for Speedweeks.

"I'm looking forward to getting to Phoenix and the rest of the tracks to start really getting control of my destiny and trying to make some things happen for me and win some races,'' he said, noting the randomness of restrictor-plate racing at Daytona.

Earnhardt understands the value of a strong start. His fast start last year proved critical when he stumbled during the summer. Had he not started as well as he did last year, that midseason slump could have kept him out of the Chase.

"You know, you do want to come in here and make sure the press knows that you wanted to win the race, because the press are going to tell the fans what you thought, and you don't want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I'm not,'' Earnhardt said in the media center. "But I am happy with the points I got tonight, because it is a tough hole to climb out of, and this new system really makes it a little different and makes you uneasy.

"I am happy to be able to come out of here and not look back throughout the season, and look at this race as one of the ones where we [gave] some points away, like we did last year."

The question is since Earnhardt was running behind Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle down the stretch Monday, was he a victim of circumstances or a teammate protecting another?

"I don't think that he was worried about me,'' said Earnhardt, who passed Biffle on the last lap to to grab that second-place finish. "I'm pretty sure that if I know Greg ... if he had an opportunity to get around Matt and had a chance to win the Daytona 500, he would have [taken] it immediately. He's trying to do what he could do.

"If I were him -- I can't imagine what his game plan was in his head -- but if I were him, I would have tried to let me push him by and then pull down in front of Matt, and force Matt to be my pusher and then leave the No. 88 for the dogs.''

Instead, Biffle tried to lead the charge instead of allowing Earnhardt to push him by Kenseth, a move Biffle said, in retrospect, wasn't the right one.

"Once he [Earnhardt] got against my bumper, and, I made sure he stayed against it around the corner, I was about three-quarters throttle and then once we got straight I pushed the gas down,'' Biffle said. "I thought that we would drive up on the back of [Kenseth] without a problem. It must have just pushed enough air out in front of my car that it pushed [Kenseth's] car out about five or six feet in front of me and I couldn't get any closer.

"The only thing I could have done was got real straight down the back stretch and pushed the brake pedal down pretty and kept going straight and slow our cars down a fair enough and then let Junior make a run at Matt around [turns] three and four and we could have moved up beside him coming off the corner and then Junior and I would have had to dice it out to the line. That is probably what I should have done ... I thought for sure that I didn't need to do that, I thought he would shove me right up to his back bumper.''

It didn't and Kenseth celebrated his second Daytona 500 victory instead of Earnhardt scoring his second 500 win (or Biffle his first).

Then again, there's Phoenix this weekend and Earnhardt is excited about his chances there.

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