DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — In one crucially important respect, this was a different Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In another respect, this was the same Dale Earnhardt Jr. we have known since his childhood.
The “different” Dale Jr. was the one who raced in Sunday night’s marathon Daytona 500, talking control of the race after a 6-hour, 22-minute rain delay and staving off challenge after challenge until he took the checkered flag.
Earnhardt had the race’s dominant car, and he knew it. Empowered by that knowledge, and bolstered by a formidable performance in the final nine races of last year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Earnhardt wasn’t about to settle for second place, his finishing position in three of the previous four Daytona 500s.
Nor would Earnhardt defer to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, who between them have won 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships to Earnhardt’s none.
Perhaps because his hunger for the taste of victory at Daytona had reached starvation proportions; perhaps because his final Daytona 500 with crew chief Steve Letarte, who leaves next year for the TV booth, had galvanized his resolve; perhaps because he hadn’t won a race at a track other than Michigan in almost eight years, Earnhardt gave no quarter to friend or foe.
“I hated to do some of the things I had to do tonight to race,” Earnhardt said after the race. “There were a couple laps where I had to run Jeff Gordon right on the fence, down the turns, the straightaway, right on his door, to keep him from drafting by me.
“I hate to do that to my teammate. I hate to do that to anybody. But that’s what it took. That’s what you had to do.”
On this night, second place would not have been good enough.
“I knew, like we had talked about before, I talked to Steve about how we were not in the right place at the end of these other races,” Earnhardt said. “We’d make a move and finish second. We knew we didn’t have a shot at winning, knew we didn’t have a shot at the leader at the end. Why? What do we need to do?
“Tonight, it was all about not giving an inch, not running fifth, not sitting there in fifth place all night and being OK with it. We wanted to be in the lead every lap, be in first every lap. That’s what my motive was.”
Brad Keselowski, who finished third, said afterwards that the 56th running of the Great American Race was the most all-out flag-to-flag run he had ever experienced. Earnhardt concurred.
“It was a unique race,” Earnhardt agreed. “I feel uncomfortable sitting here bragging that I drove my ass off or ran the best race of my life, but it was a unique race. We all were pushing the envelope out there, asking a lot of each other. I remember running real, real tight on the door of the 16 car (Greg Biffle) for the lead. He had the 20 (Matt Kenseth) behind him.
“I just kept thinking, ‘All it’s going to take is for Matt to make one move a little wide into the corner or something like that, catch my quarter panel, turn me into the 16, we’re going to be up in the wall.’
“Every lap you’re asking every driver around you to be able to hold their line and be smart and see what’s happening and understand how close quarters were. Everybody was shoving all over each other, climbing over the top of each other. So you were asking a lot of everybody around you to be able to do that all night long.”
But the drivers running near the front did just that — masterfully.
“We all really put each other in a lot of difficult situations, but it was really fun even under the circumstances,” Earnhardt said. “I felt like that, for the first time in a long time, you were able to see just how talented everybody out there was. Biffle and all those guys, everybody was really bringing the best out of themselves tonight.”
If the Earnhardt on the race track was different, the one who sat at the dais in the media center was thoroughly familiar.
This was the Earnhardt who makes no attempt to disguise what he feels, and his elation was palpable. This was the pure, guileless, relentlessly honest Dale Earnhardt Jr., the driver whose total absence of pretense binds him inexorably to the fans who love him, regardless of his results on the track.
To call Earnhardt’s honesty “refreshing” is to do it a grave injustice. His honesty is nothing short of astonishing and his moral compass unerring.
The level of his confidence, however, may be at a new pinnacle.
“We have a lot of confidence, coming off such a strong year (2013), obviously winning this race,” Earnhardt said. “Our confidence couldn’t be higher. Confidence is a great thing. It’s half of the battle, you know, being confident in what you’re doing. When you have the most, you’re in perfect situations to have some good things happen, so hopefully we can seize the moment.”
Team owner Rick Hendrick echoed Earnhardt’s comments.
“It’s that little magic with the car,” Hendrick said. “It’s also that magic with the guys here, with the team. When you hit it, it’s amazing. When Jimmie Johnson goes two years and doesn’t win a championship, something’s wrong.
“Well, there’s nothing wrong; it’s just everybody else is that good. They’ve got that magic, and these guys have that magic. I think this could be the year.”