He knew it was a fast car so it was a little bit of a decision at the end of the first Duel 150 race at Daytona for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“It’s a hard equation,” he said in Victory Lane when I asked him which was his priority, save the car or win the race. “But your instincts take over and you want to win the race”
No question Earnhardt had the fastest car in the race as he was able to hold off Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney for the victory. It’s his fifth Duel victory, the most among active drivers and his second straight.
“We knew it was a real good car. … It’s a great car,” said Earnhardt. “Another win at Daytona for the Earnhardts, adding to our legacy.”
Earnhardt led 28 of the first 30 laps after taking the lead from pole-sitter and teammate Chase Elliott. With six laps to go, Earnhardt got past Hamlin and went into the lead and onto victory. All told, Earnhardt led 43 of 60 laps.
Brining this car to Daytona was the plan all along as “Amelia” as Dale’s ride is nicknamed, was fast right off the truck again. Last year Earnhardt won three races and had a second and a third in five races driving “Amelia.”
“Even if the guys told me we were going to have a fast car and it was a new car, you get comfortable in certain cars and I really like this one,” he explained. “I don’t spend time in the garage but you figure cars become obsolete after about six months for whatever reason. But this car is still fast.”
Today (February 18) was the 15th anniversary of Dale Sr.’s death at Daytona, a fact not lost on his son. “I was daydreaming a little bit,” Earnhardt said in his post-race interview. “I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day. That was special to me.”
“It’s real special,” Earnhardt admitted. “I was thinking about that. I try not to make too big a deal. I’ve told all you guys in interviews we’ve done how much I like people to remember dad, talk about dad. It really warms my heart to see the stuff on social media and so forth. That’s probably my best way to gauge the reaction to a day like this. You see a lot of people mention him … It’s pretty cool.”
Michael McDowell will advance to the 40-car Daytona 500 field Sunday, while Whitt and Josh Wise will miss the 500.
Race Two of the Duel 150’s was pretty uneventful until the end. Matt Kenseth was on the pole and held the lead until Kyle Bush went to the front and took control. On the final lap, Jimmy Johnson, running third, got pushed sideways coming out of turns one and two starting a chain reaction through the field that ended the race on a caution. Busch cruised to the victory, the second in a Daytona qualifying race for the defending NASCAR champion.
“I feel like we’re on a birdie from last year,” Busch said from Victory Lane. “Winning this race was great and hopefully it is a good sign for Sunday.”
With his victory in the Duel and Kenseth being forced into a backup car because of a crash on the final lap, Busch will now start on the front row in Sunday’s Daytona 500.
“I haven’t had a chance to run this car much in traffic,” Kyle told me after the race. “It’s too scary in practice and I don’t think I was any worse than 2nd in this race. So we’ll keep this car shined up and ready to go for Sunday.”