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
"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
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,
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.