DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Appearing remarkably refreshed in spite of limited sleep, and with the prospect of a weeklong media tour staring him in the face, Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he believes the time has come for he and his team to rise to the occasion.
"I think it's our time. This is our year," the two-time Daytona 500 winner said Monday morning during the annual champion's breakfast at Daytona International Speedway.
"Every year we've gotten marginally better," said Earnhardt Jr., now a 20-time winner in NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series. "It just seems that we would continue to do that this year. We ain't got far to go before we're one of the best teams, if we're not already.
"Being able to start the season with a win certainly solidifies my belief in our team. We ended last year finishing second (at Homestead); we were one of the best teams in the Chase, one of the more competitive teams when the season wrapped up. If we just continue on our path to improving, we don't have far to go. We should be winning races. That's the way I felt in the offseason. Then we come right out of the gate and win one."
The victory certainly put Earnhardt Jr. in a strong position. With NASCAR's new Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup format all but guaranteeing race winners a spot in the 10-race playoff, the road for the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team, led by crew chief Steve Letarte, suddenly got a lot smoother.
Sunday night's win in the season-opening event snapped a 55-race winless streak by the sport's most popular driver. But that doesn't mean Earnhardt Jr. is easing off the throttle anytime soon.
"I'm going to fight every week," he said. "We've got a great opportunity to be already in the Chase. Going off last year's points system we would have won the championship, so we know under this current format that we can do the job. So I feel real good about it."
Letarte, who will leave the pit box to join NBC in the television booth next season, said getting the win out of the way early could make for a much less stressful final year.
"I think this is going to make a much more relaxing summer hopefully with the new points system and all, and we can go out and get some wins," he said.
"This race is such a big deal. ? You grow up in racing and the Daytona 500, maybe the Indy 500, maybe Le Mans, that's like the three that's the world of racing. To think we have the chance to win it, the whole thing's pretty surreal.
"I mean, what races do you still celebrate the next day? You have a breakfast, and keep getting trophies and jackets. I'm just proud of the team that we've assembled, they're a great group of guys (and) they deserve most of the credit. They built a great race car, Dale drove a great race."
Team owner Rick Hendrick signed Earnhardt Jr. prior to the 2008 season and has felt the brunt of the Junior Nation wondering when its driver was going to contend for wins and titles.
Winning the Daytona 500, he said, buys him a bit of a reprieve.
"I get six days that the Earnhardt fans don't ask me 'when's he going to win again?'" Hendrick said. "So I've got a vacation until Phoenix."
Hendrick called the 56th running of the Daytona 500 "a perfect race."
"He drove the wheels off the car every lap, Stevie called the perfect race, pit stops were perfect, T.J. (Majors) did a unbelievable job up there spotting.
"I think back to the first (time) when we came down here and (Earnhardt Jr.) won the qualifier and then the Shootout and we thought we were going to win the 500. But (last night) was a great night, great for the sport, great for the fans and I'm glad to be a part of it."
? How did the most recent Daytona 500 winner spend his evening?
"I was taking pictures and doing media until 3 (a.m.) or so probably," Earnhardt Jr. said of his media obligations. "The team was having most of the fun. When I got over there they were out of 'spirits' so we found some more. We just sat around and talked about how cool it was, just punching each other in the shoulder until about 4. Then I had to hang it up. I was hitting the wall. I knew I needed to at least get an hour (sleep) before I could come up here and talk with any kind of sense. And I knew I had a long day.
"The guys got to have some fun last night but we probably won't really be able to hang loose, raise hell until we go home or we go to Vegas. Most of the crew will travel from Phoenix to Vegas so we might have some fun out there."
? Following today's breakfast, Earnhardt Jr. headed to New York City for more media obligations, and will travel to Bristol, Conn., for appearances on ESPN.
From there, it's on to Austin, Texas, Las Vegas and then on to Phoenix for the season's second race.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I'm going to enjoy it. We won a big race and we put a lot of effort into it. And I'm going to make sure everybody hears about it."
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