2014 Coke Zero 400: Dale Earnhardt Jr. seeking restrictor-plate redemption at Daytona

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

After controversy the last time he raced on a restrictor-plate track, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a point to prove this weekend at Daytona.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. last left Daytona International Speedway it was following an emotional Daytona 500 victory, which then prompted a tweet seen around the motor sports world -- Earnhardt standing in Victory Lane alongside the Harley J. Earl Trophy.

Nearly five months later, Earnhardt returns to Daytona for Saturday's Coke Zero 400, and he does so in the unusual position of having to prove something not only to himself but to his legion of supporters as well.

"I learned some lessons. You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year."-Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Wait, what? The man who won the sport's biggest race returns to that very track for the first time since and he is looking for redemption?

"It was embarrassing man" Earnhardt said Thursday at Daytona. "I hate to talk about it. The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is just really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete."

Yes, in his own mind Earnhardt feels he must atone for what transpired in the restrictor-plate race that followed Daytona -- the May 4 Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was then, mired in traffic and with a car not comfortable in dirty air, Earnhardt made the decision to lag back in the final laps and not attempt to challenge for the victory.

Ever mindful of the consequences of what can happen when a driver puts himself in an unfavorable position on NASCAR's most volatile speedway, Earnhardt, who missed two races following a 2012 Talladega crash, thought about the big picture.

And from that outlook, what Earnhardt saw was a driver already in the Chase thanks to a Daytona 500 victory, and a very good car that needed to be preserved for Talladega's Oct. 19 race where the stakes would be considerably higher (the track is one of the playoff elimination events). Hence, a cautious Earnhardt finished 26th.

"I learned some lessons," Earnhardt said. "You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year. ... I forgot that there was a team behind me, and depending on me. Lot of fans there to see us race, showed up to spend hard-earned money, so it was a difficult thing to go through."

His judgment brought much consternation from those who didn't understand why, in a race where it's easy in almost any circumstance to get to the front because of the benefit of the draft, a driver would willingly concede defeat. Especially in the case of Earnhardt, who is regarded for his ability to maneuver in the draft and had a car capable of winning, having led 26 laps earlier.

In the immediate aftermath standing in the Talladega garage, Earnhardt rationalized his choice, pointing out the pros of playing safe.

"You know they're going to crash and I can't afford to wreck any more here," he said. "So, you've just got to pick your battles. And I felt like we were better off not getting in a wreck and trying to stay back there."

However, in the days that followed and the backlash on social media built up, a different tenor took root. The very next day on his weekly podcast, a disheartened Earnhardt wished he had chosen a different tactic in Talladega's closing stages.

"In the last 10 laps, I didn't do what I was supposed to do," Earnhardt said. "I know a lot of people are disappointed, and I'm disappointed that they're disappointed. I feel like I should have put on a better effort just for the people who come to watch us race. I feel I let a lot of people down. I'll have to live with that. I learned some pretty good lessons, some pretty hard lessons. Hopefully, we won't have a repeat of that."

That Earnhardt feels he has to validate something at Daytona would fit the theme of his 2014 season.

When crew chief Steve Letarte announced in January that he would be leaving Earnhardt at the end of the year to become an analyst for NBC Sports, many expected the No. 88 team to regress. A repeat of 2013 where Earnhardt ranked fifth in points and posted a career-high 22 top-10 finishes seemed unlikely.

Both Earnhardt and Letarte each adamantly stated they were 100 percent committed to ending their relationship on a positive note. At the midway mark of the season, they have more than fulfilled their vow. In addition to winning Daytona, Earnhardt was also victorious at Pocono Raceway, is second overall in points, and not once has Letarte's lame duck status been an issue.

And those who questioned whether Earnhardt was a legitimate championship contender due to having just one win in the past five years got their answer immediately in the season-opening Daytona 500. His Pocono triumph gave him multiple victories for the first time in 10 years.

"We will worry about next year and the change at crew chief and all that good stuff," Earnhardt said. "But man, it's important for us to sustain this for this season. More important than anything else and we are going to concentrate on that."

Will Saturday's race just be another "I told so" from Earnhardt to his detractors? The probability is high.

Then again, was there really anything for him to prove in the first place?

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