There was a time when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seemingly an unstoppable force in any restrictor-plate race. But it's been nine years since NASCAR's most popular driver won a Sprint Cup Series points event at Daytona International Speedway.
That doesn't mean Earnhardt is no longer competitive there, as he nearly won the Daytona 500 in February, finishing runner-up to Jimmie Johnson. It was his third second-place finish in the 500 in four years.
"It's been a bit of a challenge for us to win here,'' Earnhardt said Friday. "We've finished well, but just haven't been able to figure out what I need to do to get into first place on the last lap. We seem to have a problem finding a way to the front, just not able to overtake the leaders."
So what does Earnhardt need to do to get back to Victory Lane at Daytona?
"Maybe throughout the race trying to be a little bit more proactive toward improving track position, being a little more aggressive,'' Earnhardt said.
But when Earnhardt says he needs to be more aggressive, he's not necessarily talking about taking more chances. He's referring to the mental aspect of plate racing: It's often like a game of chess where a driver needs to think multiple moves ahead and anticipate what's going to happen.
In recent plate races -- and particularly at Daytona -- Earnhardt has a tendency to lag back and then charge late. But with passing more difficult, this tactic has put him at a disadvantage in the closing laps.
What Earnhardt would like to do in Saturday's Coke Zero 400 is put himself in a better position earlier, so that when he does make his move he doesn't have as much ground to cover. In February's Daytona 500, he was running fourth on the final lap, but in a race dominated by single-file racing even that was too much of a deficit to overcome.
"I think we might need to try to be in a better position sooner where we're not having to do so much at the end of the race and not have an opportunity to challenge for the win," he said.
But even if he does everything correctly and makes all the right moves, Earnhardt knows that he still might not be enough to secure the victory. As he sees it, there's just too much outside of his control.
"There are so many variables in play that the best plans never really seem to work out and you just sort of go by your gut in those moments of those races,'' Earnhardt said. "It really comes down to anyone making the gut decision at that moment when you're faced with a choice to do one thing or the other, making the right one and you don't always do.
"You don't fall back on years of experience of race after race of doing it. It comes down to really like dodging a bullet. You move left or right and hope you make the right decision.''