But for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Coke Zero 400, he can’t race the way he did at Talladega Superspeedway in May.
The Daytona 500 winner went to Talladega thinking he’d win another restrictor plate race, but instead finished 26th in a performance that still haunted him Thursday when he showed up at Daytona International Speedway.
“It’s embarrassing man, I hate to talk about it,” Earnhardt said before the first of two practice sessions for Saturday night’s race.
“The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of the race was just uncharacteristic really of anybody that is in the field trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us and lost sight of the overall big picture and what you’re out there trying to do and who all is out there depending on you to do what you need to do. I learned some lessons.”
He’ll attempt to apply the lessons in the 400-miler Saturday night, where he’ll most likely race hard and try to lead much the same way he did when he won the season-opening Daytona 500. The February race had a frantic pace because of a rain stoppage that lasted 6 hours, 22 minutes. When the racing resumed, Earnhardt was determined to win his second Daytona 500.
Earnhardt led six times for a race-high 54 laps — all after the rain delay — and ended a 55-race losing streak that dated to 2012 with the win.
But at Talladega, he wasn’t at all the same racer.
Earnhardt led 26 laps early and gambled he’d have no trouble making it back through the traffic when he was shuffled to the rear. When it became clear he had his work cut out for him, Earnhardt opted to take it easy and nurse his Chevrolet home for a clean finish.
Fans were livid.
“I think I got real selfish at Talladega and what the result and how the result affected anyone I never took into account,” he said. “I really just was out there thinking more about me and what I thought and what I wanted to do and how frustrated I was.
“I forgot that there’s a team behind me depending on me and a lot of fans there to see us race and show up to spend their hard earned money. Definitely was a difficult thing to go through.”
Earnhardt has eight wins at plate tracks — four behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the active-driver lead — and wants another win. Johnson, who goes into Saturday night with three wins in the last six races, believes his teammate has a shot at the sweep. Before Johnson did it last year, the last driver to sweep Daytona was Bobby Allison in 1982.
“If I don’t have a chance to win the race, I wouldn’t mind if he did,” Johnson said. “He’s going to be fast. He’s going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win. That stat went 30 years for a reason. It’s not easy because in plate racing, anything can happen. He’s the one who gave me that phrase about ‘If I make it to the white, and you’re in the picture, you have a shot at winning.’ If he can make it to the white he will definitely be a threat.”
Earnhardt is aware of the ability to sweep, and recognizes how difficult it would be to complete.
“I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here,” he said. “To go to Victory Lane here, regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me. I expect that we will try to do the best thing that we can to help us strategy-wise so that we are toward the front.”