The Daytona 500 is much more than just the opening race of the 2011 Sprint Cup season. The race is the biggest of the year. It brings more media coverage and prestige than any other race on the schedule. It is the race all stock car drivers want to win. In 2011 it is a race Dale Earnhardt Jr. must win.
The 2010 season was a dismal one for the son of a Nascar legend, Dale Earnhardt Sr. A look at the stats will show no wins and one pole while managing to complete more than 99% of the laps. His average starting position and finish were both 19th, while finishing 21st in the points. These stats show a driver and team that under performed, not one that suffered through mechanical failures or crashes. Truly a disappointing season when you are driving for the same group, Hendrick Motorsports, that made Jimmie Johnson a five time Sprint Cup champion.
Daytona is a track that has given Dale Jr, some of his greatest moments and also his worst. The track has given him victory and taken his dad in a crash. He watched his father struggle for years to win the Daytona 500, and saw first hand how much it meant when he did. Many fans and drivers feel he has an advantage, passed down from his father, whenever he come to Daytona or Talledega. It is said he, like his father, can “see” the air move around the other cars. Whatever the reason it is among his best performing tracks.
Dale Jr. comes to Daytona with a new team. He will still be driving the National Guard/Amp Energy Drink Chevrolet out of the Hendrick Motorsports shop. However in an attempt to shake things up, Rick Hendrick has decided a swap of teams was in order. The team headed by Steve LeTarte that used to prepare and service the Dupont Chevrolets of Jeff Gordon will now work with Dale Jr. The Lance McGrew led team will now work with Gordon. Despite some late season struggles the Steve LeTarte led team performed well all season as Gordon easily qualified for The Chase. The change probably has more to do with getting Dale Jr. to return to winning than the fact that Gordon failed to win the Sprint Cup.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. must not only run well at Daytona, he must win the 500. He needs to be fast all through Speedweeks to build up his confidence. He needs to qualify on the front row. He needs to win on Thursday in the qualifying race. But most importantly he must win the Daytona 500. He needs the confidence a win will bring. He needs to get off to a good start with his new crew chief, something he struggled with last year. He needs to show this team he can get the job done if they give him a good car. He needs this win more than any other in his career and more than any other driver in the field.
Winning the Daytona 500 will not guarantee a spot in The Chase to Dale Earnhardt Jr. It won’t bring him any more fame or popularity. It can however give him and his new team the confidence they need in each other to have a good year. A bad performance especially if it is not due to a crash could see Dale Jr. having another season like 2010. He must win the Daytona 500.