He strolled around his No. 88 Chevy that was parked on pit road at Daytona International Speedway, admiringly looking at it like it was the car of his dreams.
"It's good," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said as he eyed his racecar moments before the start of the first Daytona 500 qualifying race on Thursday. "We'll know more here in a little bit, but we're going to have some fun."
After huddling for a few minutes with his crew chief, Steve Letarte, and his car owner, Rick Hendrick, Earnhardt slid into the cockpit, fired the ignition, and thundered into the sun-kissed Florida afternoon.
Earnhardt started the 150-mile qualifying race in the rear of the field because he blew an engine in practice a day earlier, and for the first 100 miles he was content to cruise around the 2.5-mile tri-oval in the back of the pack. Then, riding in 12th place with six laps to go, Earnhardt nimbly avoided the spinning cars in front of him of Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin. This was Earnhardt at his best, threading his Chevy through a swirl of smoke and debris to emerge unscathed. To win the Daytona 500, you must stay out of harm's way and not be involved in the Big One -- the multi-car wreck that Daytona is famous for producing -- and no driver is more skilled at this than Earnhardt, who has finished second in two of the last three Daytona 500s.
Earnhardt wound up ninth in his qualifying race, but don't be deceived: he's going to be very, very fast on Sunday -- and he knows it. Though his Chevy on Thursday was too "tight" for his liking -- meaning the front end of the car slid up the track through the turns -- Earnhardt was a picture of confidence after he climbed out of his car in the garage, even joking that he wanted to steal the headlines away from Danica Patrick by winning the race.
"We've got a good piece," Earnhardt said. "We get that balance right, and get the thing to turning good, we'll have a great shot."
No track in NASCAR carries more meaning to Earnhardt than Daytona, the site of his greatest personal tragedy (the loss of his father in 2001) and his greatest professional triumph (winning the 2004 Daytona 500). Even when Earnhardt was struggling through a 143-race winless streak, which he snapped last season, he always believed he could win on the high banks of Daytona, because he's as adept as anyone in the sport in the art of drafting, which he learned from his legendary father. Yes, the place is special to him, and it says here that he'll create another Daytona memory on Sunday by winning the 55th running of the Great American Race.
Here's how I see the 500 playing out for Earnhardt, who will start 19th: Early in the race he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson will flex their horsepower muscle and draft to the front of the pack together. Then they'll drop to the back and cautiously motor around the tri-oval, waiting for the Big One to erupt in front of them. After avoiding the accident that could wipe out up to half the field, Earnhardt and Johnson will make their charge with about 15 laps to go. They'll take the lead with five laps left and then Earnhardt will edge Johnson at the finish for the victory.
So it will be a one-two finish for Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday. Here are five other drivers to watch when the green flag flies:
1. Kevin Harvick
Harvick is off to a perfect start at Daytona. He won the Sprint Unlimited preseason race last Saturday night and he took the checkered flag in his qualifying race on Thursday. Because of the speed he's flashed during Speedweeks, Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 winner, must be considered the pre-race favorite, even though no driver in history has ever pulled off the Daytona trifecta.
Harvick is in his final year with Richard Childress Racing -- he's moving to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014 -- and on Thursday he joked about being a "lame duck driver." In years past drivers have struggled in the Cup series after it's been revealed they're leaving their teams at the end of the season, but right now the No. 29 crew is as sharp as any in the sport. Expect Harvick to be a force on Sunday.
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2. Tony Stewart
In 15 career starts in the Daytona 500, Stewart has never reached Victory Lane. He's lost almost every way imaginable -- getting passed late, suffering a mechanical problem late, having an untimely caution flag fall late and causing him to lose track position... The 500 is the only major race in NASCAR that Stewart has never won, and yet he consistently runs in the lead pack at Daytona. Stewart does have three career Cup victories at Daytona, but they all occurred in the month of July.
3. Greg Biffle
If a Ford driver is going to take the checkered flag on Sunday, it likely will be Biffle. He won his first career Cup race here in 2003 and he's led laps at Daytona in five of the last six races at the 2.5-mile tri-oval. On Thursday, after starting his qualifying race in 14th, Biffle steadily worked his way through the field and came in second.
"You have to be in the right place at the right time," Biffle said. "You have to get a run and have some cars with you and side draft a guy and get out front."
4. Kyle Busch
No driver in the Cup series scored more points over the final four races of the 2012 season than Busch. And it now certainly appears that the impressive speed he displayed over that stretch has carried over to this season. On Thursday Busch held off Kasey Kahne to win the second qualifying race.
Busch has never won the Daytona 500, but he's led laps in seven of his eight starts. "It's hard to pass the leader," Busch said in Victory Lane. And he was right: the big takeaway from the qualifying races was that, because of the aerodynamics of the so-called "Gen-6" car that will make its debut on Sunday, it will be extremely difficult to make a last lap pass of the leader.
5. Danica Patrick
Last Sunday Patrick became the first woman in history to win a pole for a Cup race. So she clearly possesses the raw speed in her No. 10 Chevy to reach Victory Lane, but she's still learning how to draft, which was evident on Thursday. After starting her qualifying race in first, she quickly fell through the field. By Lap 10 she was 22nd out of 23 drivers and she finished 17th. "I wish I knew more," she said afterward.
No doubt, it would be the story of the decade in NASCAR if Patrick were to win the Daytona 500, but I have yet to find anyone in the garage that's not on her team who genuinely believes she has a legitimate shot. But remember: Daytona is as much about surviving the Big One as it is about speed. So if Patrick is still in the race late and her fenders are clean, she'll have a chance because she has so much power under the hood. She's a long shot, yes, but so was Trevor Bayne in 2011, when in just his second career Cup start he won the Daytona 500.
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