Scott Fowler

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., a great position near Daytona’s end is squandered

The fans were on their feet, the No. 88 car was close to the lead, it was 80 degrees and all was right at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver in NASCAR, won the Daytona 500 in 2014. On Sunday afternoon, he was in a good position to win it again in 2015.

But Earnhardt’s uncharacteristic mistake, coupled with Joey Logano’s strong driving, meant that Logano won the race and Earnhardt finished third. Logano ended up almost deliriously happy. Earnhardt ended up bemoaning what might have been.

“I should have won the race,” the driver that fans like to call “Junnnnnniyahh!” said afterward.

Earnhardt’s mistake came on a critical restart with 19 laps to go following a caution flag. Instead of staying toward the bottom of the track, where he had been good all day, he tried to go high and instead ended up in the middle.

Suddenly, everyone was racing three-wide, and Earnhardt was getting passed on either side like he was a big rock in the middle of a fast-moving stream. In a single lap, he plummeted from third to 15th.

With one of the best cars on the track and a long-established knack for driving well at restrictor-plate tracks, Earnhardt still worked his way back up to third by the end. But he was disappointed later, knowing what might have been.

“You don’t get cars that good too often,” Earnhardt said.

Earnhardt said he misread the outside line, thinking he was farther clear of the cars on his right that would ultimately end up sandwiching him into the middle.

“Just one of them moves,” Earnhardt said. “You made some good ones, you make some bad ones. I made a bad one too late.”

The race itself was fairly uneventful compared to the past few days at Daytona. It ended under an anti-climactic caution flag, as a wreck behind the leaders meant that Logano crossed the finish line under yellow.

After Saturday’s race featured two crashes of at least 10 cars apiece, there was no “Big One” in this Daytona 500. There was, however, about 15 laps of the best three-wide racing you will ever see near the end of the race before a couple of late caution flags mucked up the aesthetics.

The Busch brothers were noticeably absent in this one – Kyle because of broken bones sustained Saturday, Kurt due to his indefinite suspension. Their stories had dominated the news cycle for most of the 48 hours before the Daytona 500, especially after Daytona officials admitted they should have had a SAFER barrier in place on the unprotected wall that Kyle Busch hit.

So Sunday was a welcome change for most everyone. It was a sunshine-filled Florida day, far removed from the shivery Thursday night races in which the pastor opened his invocation by saying, “Lord, tonight it is cold.”

No one got badly hurt Sunday. And most people seemed to be in a pretty good mood, even Jeff Gordon – who led the most laps but was caught up in a last-lap wreck and finished 33rd.

The race had a deserving winner. Only 24, Logano nearly won the points championship in 2014 and has now won nine races in NASCAR’s top series. He held off Kevin Harvick, who finished second and won the 2014 overall points title.

So it was a solid, name-brand sort of race. Earnhardt, though, will remember Sunday as a missed opportunity. He has already won two Daytona 500s in his career.

At the track where his racing legend father was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, Earnhardt Jr. had a great chance at a third trophy. Instead, he finished third.

It wasn’t a bad finish at all, given that Earnhardt is breaking in a new crew chief. But it wasn’t what he wanted. And given that Earnhardt is now 40, you have to wonder how many chances this good he has left at winning another Daytona 500.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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