After rough weekend, Earnhardt nearly pulls off Daytona surprise, finishes second

By Chris Jenkins, AP
Sunday, February 14, 2010

Earnhardt nearly pulls off Daytona surprise

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s charge to second place in the last two laps of the Daytona 500 was so frantic that even he couldn’t quite remember how he pulled it off.

Earnhardt came out of nowhere to nearly steal a surprise victory at Daytona International Speedway on Sunday, somehow surging from 10th to second in a hard-driving finish during NASCAR’s version of overtime. He couldn’t quite run down Jamie McMurray as they raced to the finish line.

“It was all a blur,” Earnhardt said. “I was just going wherever they weren’t. I really don’t enjoy being that aggressive. But if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best.”

Earnhardt, who hasn’t won since June 2008 and missed the Chase last season, said the runner-up finish was awesome and frustrating, coming that close to another Daytona victory. The great run at the storied track isn’t necessarily an indication that he’ll be good at other NASCAR stops, either.

But it was a healthy shot of momentum for a driver facing intense pressure to perform for Hendrick Motorsports this season.

“I was happy,” Earnhardt said. “I’m happy for the finish and it validates the changes they made and the hard work they’ve done over the offseason to get better.”

Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and the July Daytona race in 2001, but had finished 27th or worse in four of his last six Sprint Cup races at the track where an accident claimed his father’s life in 2001.

Earnhardt said he might have driven too conservatively at Daytona in recent years, and decided to let it all hang out this time around.

“I figured, ‘What do I have to do to finish one of these things and finish it good?’” Earnhardt said. “I might have been a little too careful, you know?”

Earnhardt’s dramatic charge came during NASCAR’s second attempt at a “green-white-checker” finish, an overtime-like provision intended to make it less likely that races will end under caution. The rule was tweaked during Speedweeks to allow for up to three attempts at a green-flag finish — instead of just one.

Earnhardt said he was in 22nd going into the final laps of regulation, but cautions caused NASCAR to add extra laps to the race and gave him the chance to charge forward.

Earnhardt praised NASCAR’s new hands-off approach to governing driver behavior, saying it made him more comfortable making aggressive moves without fear of punishment.

“They made a lot of good choices on what to do to sort of put the racing back into the drivers’ hands,” Earnhardt said. “There was a ton of bumping out there. I never once felt like anybody was looking over my shoulder, you know. I mean, everybody took care of everybody as far as I know.”

Still, Earnhardt said Sunday’s strong finish didn’t exactly dull the financial pain from Saturday’s Nationwide race. Earnhardt flipped and completely tore up his car in a wreck, and teammate Danica Patrick heavily damaged her car when she got caught up in a crash. The Nationwide race was a rough day for JR Motorsports, the family race team that Earnhardt co-owns.

Earnhardt said Saturday the bill to replace his Nationwide car and repair Patrick’s could total approximately $200,000. The total bill for bringing a pair of Nationwide cars to Daytona was even more.

“No, no, nothing will dull that — unless someone has a $600,000 check they want to give me,” Earnhardt said.

Sunday’s third-place finisher, Greg Biffle, was sitting next to Earnhardt in the postrace news conference and apologized for hitting him in Saturday’s accident. Earnhardt apparently hadn’t realized who hit him.

“I was looking at your feet,” Biffle joked.

Answered Earnhardt: “That was a mess.”

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