DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – He came so close. In his first race since July 9 last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. led 53 of 60 laps Thursday night in the second Can-Am Duel at Daytona International Speedway. It looked like it would be a good addition to an already good week for NASCAR’s most popular driver. He showed up to Daytona medically cleared, newly married and smiling.
Almost as if he had not lost a beat, Earnhardt nearly won the pole for the Daytona 500, but was still fast enough to secure a front row spot, and the pole for Thursday’s nights second qualifying race.
Earnhardt took an early lead and held off nearly all challengers. Like his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, and Daytona 500 pole winner Chase Elliott in the first Duel, Earnhardt bobbed back and forth blocking the field behind him. In that first Duel , Elliott used the move to win.
Denny Hamlin who won last Sunday’s Clash seemed to be Earnhardt’s strongest challenger, but a pit road penalty for going through too many pit boxes during the race’s first caution on lap 25 sent him to the back of the pack, and it looked as though Earnhardt would add would win his Duel for the third year in a row.
With two laps to go, Hamlin had fought his way through the field and was looking for the lead. On the final lap, Hamlin charged to the outside and Earnhardt, caught on the inside with no drafting help, began to fall back.
“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” Earnhardt said. “Once I heard the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they was going to have a big run. Denny (Hamlin, race winner) is so smart and he knows what he’s doing out there. He’s one of the better plate racers out there. Any which way I would have went, he was going to go the other way and probably get by me.
“I was hoping Austin (Dillon) might push us a little bit since he drives a Chevy,” he added. “But I don’t know if I would have done it any different than he did, either. Congratulations to Denny.”
Hamlin went onto victory, Earnhardt settled for sixth.
“They just had a good run at the end,” Earnhardt said. “I was doing what I could to keep the lead, but once they got clear of that inside lane they built so much momentum real fast right there at the end of that back straightaway, and had such a big run.”
The good news for Earnhardt is that he will still start second for Sunday’s Daytona 500. However, should the same situation arise in the final laps Sunday, Earnhardt may again miss out on a storybook ending for his return to racing.
“There ain’t much you can do about that,” Earnhardt said. “It’s not really defendable. So, it’s a good job by Denny and those guys putting it all together at the end.”
Winner Hamlin said he had no regrets.
“No. I don’t feel bad,” Hamlin said. “No, no, not at all (smiling). He’s won a lot. He’s still going to win a whole lot more. His position was a lot like my position on the last lap of the Clash. We were coming so fast, it’s like a free kick in soccer. As a goalie, you guess which way they’re going to kick the ball. He thought I was going one way and I went the other.”