He looked a little like a kid who had just walked out of school to begin his summer, the way he smiled after he hopped out of his No. 88 Chevy and bounded toward the media center in the infield of Daytona late last Sunday night. This was as happy as Dale Earnhardt Jr. had been at a racetrack in over a year, and for a good reason: He had just put on a show that was so compelling it even overshadowed a certain pot hole in Turn 2 of the most famous track in NASCAR.
"I can't say we're back yet, but this is a great f-----g start," Earnhardt told me as we walked toward the media center. "The real test for us will come next week at Fontana [Calif.]. We've got to run well there to prove that we're capable of making the Chase and winning races."
Indeed, you could make the argument that Sunday's Auto Club 500 in Fontana is a far more important race for Earnhardt than the Daytona 500, the so-called Super Bowl of stock car racing. Junior authored a strong performance in the Great America Race. After qualifying second, he led laps early, stayed out of trouble, fell back midway through the race as his handling went away, then made a late charge that was the stuff of Earnhardt family legend.
Sitting in 10th with two laps to go in the third attempt at a green-white-checkers finish, Earnhardt bolted through the field as if his No. 88 Chevy suddenly had an extra 20 horsepower. He bumped cars out of the way, swerved left and right, darted through holes that didn't appear to be there, and ultimately finished second behind Jamie McMurray. If you don't think Earnhardt has talent, just watch those final two laps on Youtube.
I spent some time with Earnhardt the morning of the 500. As we chatted outside his motor coach in the driver's lot, one thing really struck me: He was happy. Really, really happy. He talked about how he and his crew chief, Lance McGrew, were becoming close friends. He spoke about the changes on his No. 88 team -- specifically, the additions of engineer Chris Daughtery and underneath mechanic Kevin Hulstein -- and how he felt he had as much talent supporting him as any other driver in the sport. He felt that this year, much more than last, all 85 employees on his team and Mark Martin's team, which are housed under the same roof at Hendrick Motorsports, would work together to find speed for both cars.
(Side note: Several people in the garage told me last week that there was some friction between the two teams last year. Rick Hendrick recognized this and in the offseason ordered everyone in the 88/5 shop to work as if they were all on one team. If they didn't, well, the door was open for them to leave. "It didn't go as smoothly last year as it should have [between the two teams," Hendrick told me on pit road before the 500. "But to see how everyone on those two teams are working together now is really great. I really think Junior is going to have a great season this year and he's going to be a great story.")
Junior often dreaded coming to the track last season as he floundered to a career-worst 25th place finish in the standings, but at Daytona he seemed different.He did virtually nothing NASCAR-related this offseason, and clearly the time away has rejuvenated him. I saw it in the driver's lot. Everyone saw it on the racetrack.
Fontana has not been kind to Earnhardt. He hasn't finished in the top 10 in his last four starts at the flat two-mile oval and he only has three top-fives in 16 career starts there. Statistically, Fontana is Earnhardt's fourth worst track on the circuit (career average finish of 22.1), trailing only Las Vegas (24.3), Homestead (23.9), and Watkins Glen (22.6).
On Sunday he will be driving chassis No. 88-578, which is a brand new car. McGrew and his crew spent the offseason building a new fleet for Little E, trying to construct cars that are easier for him to handle. Last year, Earnhardt and McGrew often started races fast, but faded late. Will this happen again on Sunday at Fontana, which is far more similar to the rest of the tracks on the circuit than Daytona?
Unlikely, according to McGrew.
"Last year we seemed to fall off two-thirds of a way through a race and not finish well," he says. "We simply had bad communication. But we know each other better now and I can often tell what he wants out of the car just by the tone of his voice. We both believe in each other and believe we can turn this around."
Can they? We'll have a better sense of this early on Sunday evening.