February 28, 2014

Dale Earnhardt’s biggest reward from winning the Daytona 500 -- a pass right into the Chase

With pressure off, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s crew can afford to experiment the rest of the Sprint Cup schedule.

AVONDALE, Ariz. – Jimmie Johnson has known Dale Earnhardt, Jr., a very long time – from even before either one was anywhere near NASCAR’s top circuit.

What does he know the rest of us might not?

"With his personality, if you’re in his face a lot, it’s not to going to work," said Johnson, six-time Sprint Cup champion and Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "He’s very observant."

That showed all week after Earnhardt won Sunday’s Daytona 500. Particularly so in how Earnhardt finally took to "the Twitter" years after most Sprint Cup drivers used social media extensively to interact with fans.

For a guy who all but kicked-and-screamed at the prospect of sharing himself digitally, Earnhardt is acing this skill. In the days he’s joined Twitter world, he’s been sentimental (posting pictures of Dale Sr., at dirt tracks), playful (poking fun at his own persnickety attitude about the perfectly-fitting hat) and serious (the bible verses he brings to the cockpit).

Obviously he’s well-received: Over 500,000 followers in five days. As Earnhardt acknowledged Friday, "I don’t know what I was thinking not getting on there earlier."

That’s Jr.’s way: Change comes slowly. Giving himself up to "Jr. Nation" is hard, but he’s more prone to go with the flow than in past years. He said he dreaded the thought of the media tour that follows winning the Daytona 500 until he crossed that finish line.

Suddenly he was enthralled by the prospect: Doing Letterman, doing the "car wash" at ESPN (multi-media platforms in Bristol, Conn.), visiting with Fox Sports. He got into Twitter so quickly that he did an impromptu question-and-answer session with fans en route from one coast to the other.

Hectic as that all sounds – his girlfriend had to scramble to build him an emergency wardrobe for the appearances – he says he showed up refreshed for Sunday’s second race of the Sprint Cup Series at Phoenix International Raceway.

Maybe it helped that everyone celebrated him. The Washington Redskins, the NFL team he grew up loving, feted him. Past champion Bill Elliott offered to fill in as his spotter Friday and Saturday. Rendezvous, the famous Memphis rib joint, promised to ship him a feast.

But the real rewards in the Daytona 500 victory relate to NASCAR’s new scoring system in qualifying for the season-ending Chase. Winning a race virtually guaranteed Earnhardt a spot in the playoffs. That changes a lot about how he and his crew can approach races going forward.

It’s an advantage he’s envied in Hendrick teammates in the past.

"Definitely setups," Earnhardt said, when asked how his crew now has latitude to gamble.

"From what I’ve noticed, with some of my teammates, when they’re comfortable they’re in the Chase, you can definitely experiment. This is where we can get aggressive.

"You’re not going to win a race on some hair-brained idea (like) running on 100-lap tires. You’re going to get run over. But we you might see things in the middle of the race where we’d do some strategy – take two tires instead of four to see if it holds."

Earnhardt likes the new format, and not just because he’s already a beneficiary.

"Points aren’t quite as important as wins now. I’ll be curious if that picks the intensity up," he said. "The last 100 laps (at Daytona), I’m wondering if that’s the norm now."

Johnson and fellow Hendrick driver Jeff Gordon seemed thrilled Friday over Earnhardt’s success.

"This sport is so much about confidence and believing in one another," Gordon said. "You can say one race doesn’t guarantee anything, but with the new points system, it guarantees a lot."

It’s taken a while for Earnhardt to fully benefit from the information- and expertise-sharing the Hendrick operation offers.

"I’ve always kind of reached out to him, told him I’m there to talk about anything really," Johnson said. "He notices how I drive my car and what I focus on. The rest he’s done on his own. We may have been a carrot out there for the 88, but they’ve done the work."

And now come the spoils, at least until race time Sunday.

"The only bad part about winning Daytona is somebody else winning Phoenix," Earnhardt concluded. "Then somebody else gets the ribs."

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