He was hanging out in the drivers lot at Daytona International Speedway, leaning back in the passenger's seat of a golf cart that was parked a few feet away from his towering motor home. The start of this year's Daytona 500 was only minutes away, but now
"I like coming here and I don't like coming here," Earnhardt said in February. "I've got so many different feelings about this place, so many memories. I loved coming here as a kid and watching my daddy race and going to the beach with my friends, but you know, now it can be hard."
The next chapter in the evolving story of "The Earnhardts at Daytona" will unfold this weekend at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. On Friday night in the Nationwide race Little E will pilot the No. 3 Wrangler Chevy, the same sponsor and same car number his father made famous in his younger years. Ever since
For Little E, though, the more important event this weekend will be the Sprint Cup race on Saturday night. Back in February in the Daytona 500 Earnhardt stormed from sixth to second on the final lap, and, for my money, this remains the most impressive one-lap display of driving to date this season, for his best finish of 2010. And now Earnhardt returns to Daytona on a mini-hot streak.
After Earnhardt struggled at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway and finished 19th on June 6, he was 16th in the standings and was 87 points out of 12th place. But now he's recorded three straight 11th place finishes or better, including an eighth-place run in New Hampshire last Sunday, and Earnhardt is in 13th place in the standings and trails a rapidly fading
"We've been working very hard and sometimes it just bears fruit," Earnhardt said after he got out of his car in New Hampshire. "That's what's been happening for us."
On Saturday night I like Earnhardt to end his 74-race winless streak. As he showed in February, Little E is as good as anyone in the sport at restrictor-plate racing. In fact, don't be surprised if he pulls the double and reaches Victory Lane in both races this weekend. Dramatic tales, both triumphant and tragic, have a way of unfolding for Earnhardts at Daytona, and this weekend may well add to the family's mystique at NASCAR's most famous track.
Here are five other drivers I'll be watching on Saturday night in the Pepsi 400:
Can he turn his season around on Saturday night? His average finish in his last two starts at Daytona is 6.5 and he has three top-five runs in his last six races at the track. But Edwards will be the first to tell you that, unless RFR makes big gains on the intermediate-length tracks ASAP, even if he wins on Saturday night he won't make the Chase.
Busch still believe he needs a tick more horsepower to win the title, an assessment that it has to hard to disagree with, especially after Johnson clearly possessed more straight-line speed than Busch in Loudon, and he also needs to collect another checkered flag or two before the Chase starts. After all, Johnson and Hamlin have five wins this season (which translates into 50 bonus points that each will carry into the Chase) while Busch only has two victories.
Can he notch win number three on Saturday night? Busch is an underrated plate racer. He's never won at Daytona, but he's finished in the top five in the five of the last eight races at the superspeedway. I think he'll be among the leaders as they barrel into the last turn on Saturday night.
My pick to reach the finish line first? Earnhardt.