DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- It's an indelible image one sees prominently throughout Daytona International Speedway. There is Dale Earnhardt Jr., having just won the Daytona 500, sitting on the door of his Chevrolet with his left arm raised triumphantly.
"You never forget exactly what that day is like," Earnhardt said. "We come here every year and it all floods back to you as soon as you come back for Speedweeks each season ... You're constantly reminded I think by just what goes on during Speedweeks how important that victory is and how much you would like to get it again. It's definitely fresh."
Although the memory may be still fresh, the fact is that moment came 10 years ago, and represents the last time Earnhardt visited Daytona's Victory Lane. And considering his proficiency in restrictor-plate races, this seems preposterous when in fact it is an actuality.
This doesn't mean, however, that the man who once dominated the Daytona high-banks is no longer formidable, as three times in the last four years Earnhardt was runner-up. But in each instance he wasn't much of factor until the latter stages, and by then his fate had already been sealed.
"I never in none of those races did I have a situation where I went ‘I let it slip by, I messed up right there,'" Earnhardt said. "Most of the time, we run our guts out and come to the finish line and we just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race."
To win his second Daytona 500, Earnhardt knows he needs to change his approach. His plan calls for him to be at or near the lead sooner as opposed to years' past when he lagged back.
"You are not going to win the race from back there," Earnhardt said. "You might run second, but you aren't going to win. You need to be leading the race. I would much rather be leading the Daytona 500 inside of five laps to go than be anywhere else."
Numerous rule changes along with the introduction of two new cars (the Car of Tomorrow, and the current Gen-6) have leveled the playing field compared to the era when Earnhardt won seven of 14 restrictor-plate races with then-teammate Michael Waltrip winning three times. This is in contrast to the previous 14 plate races where nine different drivers have emerged victorious led by Jimmie Johnson with three combined wins.
"(Finishing second) is nothing to be ashamed of," Earnhardt said. "I still feel like that we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence, and just in myself regardless of the car."
Through the preliminary events leading into Sunday's Daytona 500, Joe Gibbs Racing has been the dominant team. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth split the Budweiser Duel qualifying races, with Hamlin also winning the exhibition Sprint Unlimited. In a race where seemingly anyone can win, the JGR drivers look to have an edge.
But Earnhardt was strong in the Sprint Unlimited. He was challenging for the victory with 10 laps to go before contact with Marcos Ambrose put him in the wall. And in his Duel, Earnhardt led for 14 laps and would have finished better than fourth had he not locked up his tires on pit road.
Earnhardt's performance through Speedweeks hasn't gone unnoticed, nor has his desire to win a second Daytona 500.
"He's an extremely competitive guy and wants to win," teammate Jimmie Johnson said. "I know last year he was probably a lap or two away from having a shot at the win, just kind of ran out of distance. ...He's very sharp and understands how to set up a pass for the win. I know he wants to win and I know he's irritated that he's been so close."