It will be hot, it will rain, and all eyes will be on Dale Earnhardt Jr. all weekend long. The first two are unavoidable facts of nature in midsummer at Daytona International Speedway, and the third might as well be.
The 14-time most popular driver always garners heavy attention at NASCAR’s most famous track. That will be multiplied even more than usual this weekend, and rightfully so.
Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 will be Earnhardt’s last race at Daytona as a full-time NASCAR Cup series competitor, and he needs a win to qualify for the playoffs. With 10 races left until the postseason starts, this race stands as his best (though not last) chance to get one.
When the cars are (relatively) equal, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to work the draft makes him stand out.
The 2017 season was supposed to be a triumphant return to the track for Earnhardt Jr., who missed half of last season with concussion symptoms. Instead, it has been an on-track disaster. He crashed out of three races and blew an engine in a fourth, which was his fault for misshifting. He has just one top-five and hasn’t contended for a victory all season. He is 22nd in points and has no path to the 16-team playoffs without winning a race.
In February, Earnhardt Jr. led eight laps in the Daytona 500, but he crashed and finished 37th. He has led only two laps since, for a total of 10 on the season, a pace that would set a career low.
Even with those struggles, he enters Saturday’s race as one of a handful of favorites because the restrictor plates that are used on the engines at Daytona sap horsepower, which makes the cars (relatively) equal. And when the cars are (relatively) equal, Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to work the draft makes him stand out.
“I think plate racing works for a certain type of personality, a certain type of mentality, cause it’s more about the choices the driver’s making instead of what the car’s capable of doing,” he said in February. “So the guys that are really good at understanding and making the right choices always seem to be toward the front.”
His accomplishments at the 2.5 mile superspeedway are many – two victories in the Daytona 500 and two in the race now known as the Coke Zero 400.
His win in the 2001 Pepsi 400, the first race at Daytona after his father died there on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, is widely considered among the most emotional and memorable wins in the long history of NASCAR.
Another Earnhardt Jr. win on Saturday would join it on that short list.