DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. — If, before Sunday's Daytona 500, you'd told Dale Earnhardt Jr. — or, more properly, Junior Nation — that the 88 car would be running in the top four on the 200th lap of the Daytona 500, with a realistic chance to win, chances are the Nation would leap on that faster than a new limited-edition souvenir die-cast car.
Indeed, that's exactly what happened. Problem is, this year's Daytona ran 208 laps. But what happened on Lap 203 changed everything, and left Junior Nation feeling empty but, perhaps, hopeful as well.
The day began as the week did, with the weight of tributes to his late father bearing down on Earnhardt's shoulders. It's anyone's guess what he was thinking during the silent third lap of the race, with hundreds of thousands of fans holding up three fingers in honor of his father. But, that behind him, he began a charge that started literally at the back of the field, thanks to a practice wreck, and ended with him leading nine laps.
Late in the race, he hooked up with Tony Stewart, and appeared to have at least a fighting chance to catch the David Ragan-Trevor Bayne tandem. Then Regan Smith spun to take out Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer and Denny Hamlin, removing three serious competitors from the board and apparently opening the door for Stewart and Earnhardt.
But before the race could even go green, the news came down: Earnhardt had flattened a tire going into the grass to avoid the wreck, and he had to come into the pits to change the tire. A couple laps later, a late wreck collected Earnhardt once and for all, and the week was at long last over.
As the race wound down around him, Earnhardt watched his crew saw pieces of sheet metal off his ruined 88, sipping from an Amp Energy bottle with his firesuit rolled down to his waist. He could actually manage a wry smile, perhaps as much in relief that the week was over as anything else.
"We ran good and had as much fun as we could under the circumstances," he said. "This type of racing is not very good. I can't see where I'm going when I'm pushing somebody, and we don't need to be pushing somebody."
However, Earnhardt was careful not to criticize NASCAR for the race. "NASCAR did what it had to do," he said. "It was too late in the game to make big changes [to adjust for the 2x2 driving]. It was a good product, a great race, and an awesome ending. ... I think we can do a little bit better. Hopefully NASCAR can make things happen and put together a better package. I want to go faster. If we're running slow, we're getting run over, and we don't need that."
The race provided an initial answer to another question, how well Earnhardt would work with new crew chief Steve Letarte. Earnhardt and Letarte talked constantly on the radio, with Earnhardt calling Letarte "sir" and Letarte pumping up Earnhardt's confidence even after the victory-destroying wreck.
It's one race in, at a track on which Earnhardt is very confident — and one, it must be noted, where he notched a second-place finish last year — but this time it was one of them racin' deals, as the saying goes, that took out Earnhardt rather than lack of skill or lack of communication.
And if nothing else, we know this thing wasn't fixed.