Earnhardt having sweep dreams at Daytona

Seth Livingstone - NASCAR Wire Service Friday, Jul 04 1604

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a chance to do something this weekend that only one driver in the previous 32 years has accomplished.

That’s sweep both NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Daytona International Speedway. The last driver to win both Daytona races happens to be Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who accomplished the feat last year.

“That stat went 30 (plus) years for a reason,” said Johnson, whose Daytona double was the first since Bobby Allison in 1982 and just the fifth in history (Fireball Roberts 1962, Cale Yarborough 1968 and LeeRoy Yarbrough 1969 the others). “It’s not easy because, in (restrictor) plate racing, anything can happen.”

As unpredictable as racing at Daytona can be, one factor Earnhardt has going for him is his consistency this season under any and all circumstances. In fact, he’s riding a string of five consecutive top-10 finishes, including his victory at Pocono Raceway and a fifth last week at Kentucky Speedway.

“I’m just thrilled with the way the team is competing,” said Earnhardt prior to Thursday’s practice at Daytona. “We have been doing some great work since the beginning of the Chase last year – maybe even a little before that. If you look at the graph, going back to 2011 when Steve (crew chief Letarte) and I got together, our performance has been a linear trajectory improvement.

“It’s as good as I have ever run at Hendrick and maybe even at DEI. I remember when we put together a couple of top-15s a couple weeks in a row. Then it became a couple of top-10s. Then, man, if we ran in the top five a couple of times we were really doing it. Our progression makes sense to me, but at the same time, it really surprises me that the team has been able to sustain it. That has been the tough part for me over my career – to sustain momentum.”

That momentum has earned Earnhardt 12 top-10 finishes in the first 17 races and has him in a points tie for second with Johnson in the Cup standings, 24 points behind another Hendrick driver, Jeff Gordon.

Earnhardt concedes that winning the Daytona 500 is a slightly bigger deal than winning the July event at Daytona. “But winning here, regardless, it’s a great feeling,” he said. “So you are going to try your guts out.

“I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here. To go to victory lane, regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me.”

Johnson says it might be even bigger for the sport.

“An Earnhardt winning in Daytona is huge, period,” Johnson said. “It would be meaningful and impactful for everybody involved. If I don’t have a chance to win the race, I wouldn’t mind if he did.

“He’s going to be fast. He’s going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win. If he can make it to the white flag lap (in contention) he will definitely be a threat.”

With two victories this season all but assuring his place in the Chase, Earnhardt says he and Letarte plan to be aggressive in terms of pit strategy on Saturday night.

“We did it perfectly for the (Daytona) 500 and we were in position at Talladega to gamble and make it work like several guys did,” said Earnhardt, who led 26 laps at Talladega but played it conservatively on fuel, got trapped in traffic and finished 26th on NASCAR’s other restrictor plate track.

“We learned a little bit there as far as how we could be a bit more aggressive with our pit strategy considering where we are in points and (with) the wins we have. ... If we run out of gas, I can take that if we are trying to win a race.”