MIAMI -- Although restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega is unlike any other competition the rest of the season, no driver needs to get off to a great start in Sunday's race more than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
That's why his front row qualifying performance last weekend has his camp so upbeat. While suffering through a miserable 2009 season, Earnhardt was as down on himself as he' ever been. With just one victory since May 2006 and on his way to a 25th-place finish in the standings, he bared his soul before last October's Cup race in Charlotte, admitting that he was beginning to doubt himself.
He appeared much different Saturday. The beard he grew during the offseason was much fuller than the one he showed off last month during the Media Tour, but more noticeable was his renewed self-confidence. He had just qualified for the front row of the Daytona 500. The only driver who went faster in Saturday's qualifications was Hendrick Motorsports teammate Mark Martin, 51, the oldest driver to win the pole for NASCAR's biggest race.
"[Dale] knows how hard we worked as an organization," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "We feel like we let him down last year. We tried, but we were just not getting it done. I don't know anybody in that garage that would have taken on the task that Alan Gustafson [Martin's crew chief] did with Lance McGrew [Earnhardt's crew chief]. I told them today I was as proud of them as if they had won a championship because they sat down and came up with a game plan and really went to work."
It was Hendrick's plan to merge the two teams into one race shop, and that decision paid off immediately in the first competition of the season. "I told him when he came over here, I was going to give him the best stuff I could," Hendrick said of Earnahrdt. "I tried, but I think we could do better, and we have. I'm just really excited. We worked hard. I'm proud of the guys. But Alan and Lance and Mark and Dale deserve all the credit."
No one in the camp is disillusioned, however. They all know the true test will come when the team heads to the "normal tracks," such as California, Las Vegas and Atlanta because that is where the total package of team, car and driver comes into play rather than a restrictor-plate track such as Daytona, where the draft is so important. But for now they're extremely satisfied with the renewed commitment.
"For it to pay off instantly like this, to have the 5 and 88 on the front row is really gratifying for us," Gustafson said. "I think it will be a big shot in the arm for us for the rest of the year."
And nobody needs that shot in the arm more than Earnhardt as he tries to regain some of the promise and performance he once displayed.
As I sit in my hotel room in Miami, sulking after watching my Indianapolis Colts lose the Super Bowl to the New Orleans Saints, I am disgusted at my fellow Colts fans who sat there as if they were at the County Fair, allowing "Who Dat Nation" to be loud and proud. I need a big event to clear my mind of that debacle. And in NASCAR, there is no bigger race than the Daytona 500 to help me forget my Super Disappointment.