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Daytona 500 preview: Dale Earnhardt's day to win

Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Image/Getty Images

Dale Earnhardt ended 2013 on a roll and starts the new season at a track that brings out his best.

He's ready now. His family says it, his friends say it and, most tellingly, the six-time champion says it.

"Dale [Earnhardt] is absolutely going to have a very, very good year," says Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports. "He's in a good place in his life. He's comfortable with who he is and what he wants. And when it comes to Daytona, he's just a natural here. On Sunday he's going to be one of the guys to beat."

Earnhardt loves Daytona, even though it was the site of the worst day of his life. Thirteen winters ago, his father died on a last-lap crash in the 500. But that horrible memory—still hauntingly vivid in Little E's mind—has made Daytona sacred ground to him. Every time he drives a rental car through the Turn 4 tunnel to enter the infield, he senses the spirit of his old man. "It's almost like I feel closer to my dad when I'm at Daytona," Earnhardt has told me. "I try to think of the good times he had here."

On Sunday it says here that Earnhardt will celebrate his own good time at Daytona: He's my pick to win the 500.

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Earnhardt has been relatively quiet during Speedweeks—he finished ninth in the preseason Sprint Unlimited last weekend and was fifth in his qualifying race on Thursday—but he's been happy with his No. 88 Chevy. Listening to him describe his car you get the sense that he's yet to test just how much horsepower he has thumping at his disposal under his right foot. And remember: Dale Jr. rarely gushes about the potential of his car.

"We found that we've got a real good race car," he said after his qualifying race. "Real happy with the way my car drove." Translation: Earnhardt believes he has all that he needs to win his second Daytona 500.

It was a decade ago that Earnhardt reached Victory Lane in the Great American Race, which for my money remains the most emotionally charged moment in NASCAR since his father died in 2001. Earnhardt has been close in recent years to taking another checkered flag in NASCAR's Super Bowl event—he's finished second in the 500 in three of the last four years—and there's a simple reason why: the track brings out the best in him. Out on the 2.5-mile tri-oval, Earnhardt is capable of producing motor sports magic, blasting through holes between cars that are impossibly narrow, riding the aerodynamic draft like he can see the air, a claim once made by his father. Perhaps this is a gift that Big E passed onto his son.

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Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular figure by a factor of 10, scored more points than any other driver in the Cup series over the final nine races of 2013 season. He was on a roll then—and I think those nine weeks of racing were just a just a warm-up for what he'll accomplish this year and what he'll do on Sunday in NASCAR's biggest race of 2014. According to my tea leaves, Earnhardt, at age 39, will make a last-lap pass—perhaps near where his father perished—to take the checkered flag. If that happens, NASCAR, a sport in the throes of decade-long funk, will be energized in a way that it hasn't since the last time Little E, as he was then known, blew kisses to the Daytona crowd.

Here are five other drivers to watch in the Daytona 500:

Complete Daytona 500 field

1. Denny Hamlin

Hamlin, on paper, looks like the driver to beat. He won the Sprint Unlimited, won his qualifying race, and even won a NASCAR golf tournament earlier this week. So far Hamlin, who missed four races last season with a back injury, has had a perfect Speedweeks.

But history is not on his side. No driver has ever swept the three races during Speedweeks. Hamlin also hasn't had much luck in recent events at the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega. "I've wrecked out for five straight years out of every restrictor-plate race I ever entered," he says. "[But] I feel like I've been pretty good at it. I've just had crummy luck, put myself in bad positions, gotten in lots of wrecks."

If he can avoid more wrecks on Sunday, Hamlin obviously has a car capable of winning on Sunday.

2. Jimmie Johnson

The defending 500-champion was dominant on the plate tracks in 2013. He won two of the four events, led laps in every plate race, and seemed to have the car to beat each time the green flag dropped at Daytona and Talladega.

Johnson wrecked in his qualifying race on Thursday and will use a backup car in the 500, but this shouldn't be viewed as a sign of weakness. He has won plenty of times in backups throughout his career, and right now no one in the sport is better at plate racing than the six-time series champion.

If Johnson isn't in the lead pack with three laps to go on Sunday, it will be an upset.

3. Matt Kenseth

Kenseth is sneaky-good at Daytona. He's won the 500 twice—in 2009 and 2012—and he took the checkered flag in his qualifying race on Thursday. He and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Hamlin, appear faster than of any other drivers in the field who are in racing trim (as opposed to qualifying setups) and if they are drafting together on the final lap, they should be able to give Gibbs his first 500 victory in 21 years.

"I think there's a lot more opportunity for a last-lap pass than there was with last year's rule package [on the cars]," Kenseth says.

Don't be surprised if it's Kenseth making that pass.

4. Austin Dillon

Piloting the famed No. 3 Chevy made famous by Dale Earnhardt, the 23-year-old Dillon posted the fastest speed at Daytona in a January test session, won the pole last Sunday, and was so confident in his car that he parked it in the garage on Friday and said he didn't need any more practice time.

"I like it," Dillon said. "I like it a lot."

Can Dillon equal rookie Trevor Bayne's 2011 win in the 500? His No. 3 Chevy possess as much raw speed as anyone in the field, but it remains to be seen if his car can sail through traffic as smoothly as the likes of Earnhardt, Hamlin, Johnson and Kenseth.

5. Danica Patrick

If you're looking for a long shot that could surprise on Sunday, Patrick is your driver. Last year, Danica was the story of Speedweeks as she captured the pole, led laps in the 500, and finished higher (eighth) than any woman in the race's history.

But Patrick hasn't flashed the same type of speed at Daytona this February. But that could very well be remedied by the time the green flag drops on Sunday. I hung out with Patrick on Friday afternoon in her motor coach, chatting about her chances as she cut up strawberries in her kitchen. "Anything can happen in this race," she said. "But I've learned that I have to trust my instincts and just go for it. I can't wait to get going."

Neither can Earnhardt. On Friday afternoon he walked through the garage in his typical fast gait. His head was up, chin high, chest out. He looked as confident as ever—the same kind of steely-eyed confidence that used to radiate from his old man when was about to climb into what he believed was a winning car.

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