Despite win in his Duel, Dale Earnhardt Jr. says winning Daytona 500 ‘didn’t get easier’

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn’t stop praising his car, his spotter and his team after winning his Budweiser Duel on Thursday night.

For all his good feelings on a frigid-for-Florida night, he knows it means little for Sunday’s Daytona 500 when the temperature is expected to be about 40 degrees warmer – reaching about 80.

“Winning the Daytona 500 is a real challenge,’’ said Earnhardt, a two-time 500 winner. “The challenge didn’t get easier tonight.’’

Thursday night’s cool conditions gave teams so much grip that handling mattered little. Sunday’s warm conditions will make the track slick and handling a premium.

That’s fine with Tony Stewart. He wore a Cheshire Cat’s smile when thinking about Sunday’s warm conditions.

“It’s actually what we’re all wanting,’’ Stewart told NASCAR Talk after finishing fourth in his Duel. “I think it will make the track slicker. Definitely be better. We’re actually going to have to get cars to handle. That’s always kind of been what has made Daytona fun is that you had to make your cars drive good.’’

Carl Edwards also can’t wait for Sunday’s slick conditions.

“It’s going to be a good race,’’ Edwards told NASCAR Talk after placing third in the second Duel. “It’s going to be cars sliding around. It’s going to be interesting.’’

At the start, it’s going to be a Hendrick Motorsports parade. The Hendrick cars showed they were the best in the cool conditions with Earnhardt’s teammate, Jimmie Johnson, winning the second Duel. Hendrick cars will start 1-2-3 in the Daytona 500 with Gordon on the pole, Johnson beside him and Earnhardt in the second row.

Winning his Duel felt great for Earnhardt, but what mattered more is that his car made it through the 150-mile qualifying race unscathed. Earnhardt had been saying since Saturday how strong he felt his car was.

“I’m just excited to be able to put this car on the grid for Sunday,’’ Earnhardt said after his 15th career Daytona victory “I wouldn’t want to be driving anything else.  The car’s so spectacular, it’s just going to be great.

“It finishes a lot of moves. It kind of surprised me. It does a couple things that surprised me out there in the race. So I felt like the car made the job a lot easier.’’

Earnhardt’s car surprised Matt Kenseth, who led 32 laps in the opening Duel before getting trapped late and finishing 17th.

“My car was about what I expected,’’ said Kenseth, who won last weekend’s Sprint Unlimited. “(Earnhardt), especially with (Gordon), was a little stronger than I expected. Junior did a great job of getting runs with (Gordon), and he had a couple of powerful runs there. He was smart enough and patient enough to bide his time until he got me in the spot he wanted me in and got by me.

“I think we had one of the stronger cars, but when they ganged up when I was leading, I couldn’t keep it.’’

Sunday could be different.