DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — This is the race many have waited for, some figuring it will be Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s best chance to win and make the playoffs in his final Cup season.
If he doesn’t win tonight’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway (7 p.m., NBC), some suggest he won’t win any of the remaining nine races and will miss the playoffs.
Earnhardt knows there are doubters. What would he tell them?
“I don’t think I’ve done much on the racetrack in the last several weeks to change your opinion or anyone else’s opinion if they had that,’’ Earnhardt said after winning the pole Friday. “With Greg (Ives, crew chief) and my team, I’m confident in them that we can show up anywhere and surprise everybody.
“If we don’t happen to come out of here and win this race, the urgency will pick up as it would as every week goes by, but I’m confident in our ability to get a win. We can go to Pocono and win. We can go to Michigan and win. I don’t see why we couldn’t go to those places and win. We were pretty competitive at both of those tracks, just to name a couple.’’
Earnhardt also understands the challenge he’ll face if he doesn’t win tonight at Daytona, a track he has 17 career total victories, including two in July (most recently in 2015).
“We are running out of time, and I’m aware of that,’’ Earnhardt said.
Teammate Chase Elliott says he sees a different Earnhardt this weekend.
“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder – but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,’’ said Elliott, who starts second. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings. So yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.’’
The problem is if Earnhardt doesn’t win at Daytona, where does he win since he won’t make the playoffs via points?
- At Kentucky, he has two top-10 finishes in six starts and has never finished better than fourth (2012)
- At New Hampshire, he is winless in 33 career starts. His best finish is third but it was in 2004.
- At Indianapolis, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is fourth in 2012.
- At Pocono, he has two wins in 34 career starts. His wins both came in 2014. He finished second there in the 2016 June race.
- At Watkins Glen, he is winless in 16 career starts. His best finish is third in 2003.
- At Michigan, he has two wins in 35 career starts. He has five top-10 finishes in his last six starts there.
- At Bristol, he has one win in 34 career starts. He finished second in the spring race there last year.
- At Darlington, he is winless in 21 career starts. He finished second there in 2014.
- At Richmond, the final race before the playoffs begin, he has three wins in 35 career starts. He has two top-10 finishes in his last seven starts there.
“I know what I need to do on the race track and I will try and go out there and do that this weekend and drive the race that I need to drive,’’ Earnhardt said of what he faces Saturday night. “Hopefully, that has me in position at the end of the race.’’
If he wins, it would be quite a celebration at a track that means so much to Earnhardt.