As Danica Mania has consumed NASCAR and Kevin Harvick has won every race he's entered, one driver has strangely flown under the radar in the days leading up to the Daytona 500.
It is an uncustomary role for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be in, who almost always finds himself the center of attention on a given race weekend -- either by what he's doing on the track or by the storylines off of it. And especially so any time the Sprint Cup Series competes at Daytona International Speedway.
But this year is the notable exception, as NASCAR's most popular driver has been quiet as other drivers have grabbed the headlines.
In the Sprint Unlimited last Saturday, Earnhardt Jr. was a virtual non-factor as a reported engine issue and a car that wasn't handling to his liking relegated him to eighth in the final rundown. In Thursday's Budweiser Duel, the 88 car was forced to start at the rear due to a pre-race engine change. While Harvick rolled to his second victory in as many races, Earnhardt finished a ho-hum ninth.
"We've got to work on our handling," Earnhardt Jr. said Thursday following his qualifying race. "Our car was really, really tight. At the first, we were on the splitter pretty bad; we worked on it yesterday and went a little too far. Got a little too aggressive with that. But put a packer in on that pit stop, and it was still real tight.
"We hadn't been around any packs. I didn't anticipate really the balance being a big deal because the car does have a good downforce package; we thought the balance would be pretty close."
Consequently, Earnhardt Jr. will lineup 19th on the grid for the Daytona 500 - the worst starting position of his career in the "Great American Race."
But just because Earnhardt Jr. has taken a supporting role this week doesn't mean he won't be a player Sunday. In final practice Saturday, Earnhardt Jr. posted the fastest speed, and despite the lack of results in the preliminary events, he remains confident in his chances to win his second Daytona 500.
"We've got a good piece," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We've got a real good car. We get that balance right, and get the thing to turning good; we'll have a great shot."