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2016 Daytona 500 preview: Dale Earnhardt Jr., ‘Amelia’ are winning combination

With a car he adores, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is confident in winning Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Her name is Amelia, named after the first female aviator to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and she has been Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s pride and joy in the days leading into Sunday's Daytona 500. Like a gushing father, whenever she is mentioned a brimming smile streaks across the face of NASCAR's most popular driver.

Except Amelia isn't a living, breathing entity in the strictest sense. She is Earnhardt's car, chassis No. 872, which he will use Sunday to pursue a second Daytona 500 win in three years and third overall.

"The car is awesome," Earnhardt said. "I don't want to get overly confident in what I'm doing, but the car really does everything I ask it to do.

"This thing is special, so I'm real excited."

Earnhardt's affinity for Amelia is justified when you consider he used that car to record two wins, a second and a fourth in four restrictor-plate races last season. So while Hendrick Motorsports customarily builds a brand-new car over the offseason for Daytona, Earnhardt and crew chief Greg Ives elected to stick with Amelia.

And really, there never was debate whether to utilize Amelia once more. Because if Earnhardt was going to get another win in NASCAR's signature event, he knew Amelia not only offered him the best chance, but she also provides an aura of invincibility.

That decision has thus far made them look all the wiser. On Thursday, Earnhardt and Amelia won their Duel qualifier for the second straight year by leading 43 of 60 laps and executing a nifty move on Denny Hamlin to take away the lead with six to go.

"You know he is going to be tough to beat," Kevin Harvick said. "... You knew he was going to be one of the cars to beat. I think it will stay that way."

Said Austin Dillon: "The No. 88 car is unreal fast."

Like a businessman who wears his favorite power suit to an important meeting, what Amelia gives Earnhardt is confidence. And considering his drafting prowess, no one is better at Daytona or Talladega, and Earnhardt having a chassis underneath that he believes can pull off any move he needs to make at any time only heightens that self-assurance.

"You're willing to take those gambles and risks to pull out and pass and not worry about getting shuffled to the back because you feel like the car is really capable of doing what you're going to ask it to do every time you make a move," Earnhardt said.

In car years, Amelia is rather old. She was constructed by Earnhardt's former crew chief, Steve Letarte, two months after their 2014 Daytona win together required the No. 88 team to forfeit the car to track officials, who then put it on display for a full year.

"There are no trade secrets (used to build that car)," Letarte told SB Nation. "Speedway racing is a culmination of a tremendous amount of effort by a tremendous amount of people and every nook and cranny of that car has been looked at and checked on. And sometimes, you just have one that runs good."

Amelia doesn't possess any unique characteristics found on other Hendrick superspeedway cars, Ives said. The fleet of cars built for Daytona and Talladega are nearly identical; the only difference is Amelia's shelf life. Because Earnhardt has not been involved in the "big one" commonly associated with restrictor-plate racing, it has allowed the No. 88 team to keep reusing her.

"Dale does such a good job of keeping the cars together through the past four races, which makes it easy on the guys," Ives told SB Nation. "Whenever you can bring a speedway car back and just massage on it rather than having to put a new body on it, you're going to keep finding a little bit more speed.

Although assembled nearly two years ago, Amelia didn't get her name until recently. Some teams bestow cars with names immediately, as an identifier beyond just chassis numbers.

"A car gets named when you drive it long enough to see a personality," Earnhardt said.

Other instances happen more organically. When Rusty Wallace won a 1993 night race at Richmond International Raceway, he did so close to midnight, which became the affectionate name for that car. Wallace, the 1989 Cup Series champion, won 13 races with Midnight and led more than 5,000 laps from 1992-94.

After the call was made to bring her to Daytona, Earnhardt realized chassis No. 872 was deserving of name after she carried him to a 1.75 average finish in four 2015 plate races.

"I said, ‘We've got to name it,'" Earnhardt said. "We were thinking of a woman who has accomplished something, that was an awesome person who was someone we could be proud of.

"Amelia Earhart was the first thing that came to my mind. She must have been the most daring. She sort of fits that mold of courage and determination that you need as a driver. She must have had that and more to be able to do the things she did in her lifetime."

A victory Sunday, however, would mean the end of chassis No. 872, as a spot in the Daytona International Speedway fan zone would await. But even if no Daytona 500 win materializes, Earnhardt wants team owner Rick Hendrick to honor Amelia properly.

"I told him, ‘Whatever happens to this thing from here on out, he needs to keep track of it,'" Earnhardt said. "Might be one he wants to put in a museum one day because it's done a lot of good things."