Dale Earnhardt Jr. still reaping benefits from winning NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Daytona 500

Winning means more than anything this season in NASCAR thanks to the new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

It meant something a little extra for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

With no win during 2013 and the 10-year exemption expired on his 2000 All-Star win, Earnhardt’s victory in the season-opening Daytona 500 was the only way to lock him into the lineup for Saturday night’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s lone All-Star victory still ranks among his favorites of his NASCAR career, in large part because he was able to share the celebration with his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr.

“The wins that I had before, he would come in and shake everybody’s hand and take off,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “That was the only Victory Lane that he stood in the entire time.

“He was talking to all the guys on the team. He was really enjoying not only the father-son relationship, but I think he was enjoying the fact that he had built a team that was the winner of the All-Star race.”

Earnhardt Jr. was almost certain to participate in this season’s event regardless of his Daytona victory. If he somehow didn’t finish first or second in Friday night’s Sprint Showdown qualifying race, the sport’s most popular driver was a near-lock to earn entry via the fan vote.

There still is an important distinction, said crew chief Steve Letarte.

“Without a doubt the All-Star race is a prestigious event, as an all-star you want to be there, you want to prepare, but what is unique about ours compared to other sports is each team races for itself,” Letarte said.

“Winning it is a big deal and not having to race in the Showdown on Friday really allows you to prepare and understand the format – all the things that are unique about the All-Star race, which you can’t really do if you’re in the Showdown.

“If you’re an NFL player you wanted to get voted into the Pro Bowl. Well, we don’t vote everyone in the All-Star race, we have to win.”

Saturday night’s main event also will be the last for Letarte, who will move to NBC Sports after the season for the network’s NASCAR broadcast crew. A replacement crew chief for Earnhardt Jr. for next season has yet to be named by Hendrick Motorsports.

Letarte earned his first Daytona 500 victory with Earnhardt Jr., but how does he think a victory in the All-Star race rank would rank?

“The All-Star race is still on my bucket list, for sure. I haven’t won one as a crew chief,” he said. “I’ve been part of some really fun nights over there. I remember working for (former Jeff Gordon crew chief) Robbie Loomis and we won with our back-up car.

“Without a doubt an All-Star win would be great – we’ll take any win – but there is something about winning that race. I know Dale won the race in 2000 as a rookie and to win it again would say a lot about how far his career has come.”