Why this victory at Daytona was a special one for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Thursday night wasn’t the first time Dale Earnhardt Jr. has driven so much like his old man at Daytona International Speedway, rivals were left agog conjuring reverential praise.

But it always means more to NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver on Feb. 18.

“It’s real special,” Earnhardt said after winning the first Can-Am Duel on the 15-year anniversary of the death of his father on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. “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, even the (Atlanta) Braves and all that stuff.  It’s pretty cool.

“I’m guilty of daydreaming a little bit about winning this race tonight because of the day.  That was special to me.  Glad nothing bad happened, that we didn’t tear our car up, because that would have been embarrassing on a day like this.”

It was the other 21 cars in the field that were at risk of being embarrassed Thursday by Earnhardt, who led a race-high 43 of 60 laps in the fifth Daytona 500 qualifying win of his career.

Shuffled out of first during a pit-stop sequence in which Denny Hamlin took the lead with 18 laps remaining, Earnhardt deftly used a bob-and-weave maneuver to slingshot his No. 88 Chevrolet past Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota.

Earnhardt led the final six laps and staved off a late charge by runner-up Joey Logano, who was the charter member in the Dale Jr. Admiration Society afterward.

“It’s just hard to pass (him),” Logano said. “He’s really, really good! He’s got a good car, and he’s a good driver at this stuff. You’re back there just taking notes on what he’s doing.”

Hamlin, who already was being asked to do a lot without fresh tires or any Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, indicated there likely was nothing he would have done differently to stymie Earnhardt’s charge.

“Not really,” said Hamlin, comparing it to a penalty kick in soccer where a goalie guesses right on a kick to the left. “I could have chopped him a little bit more, but I saw in my mirror, it would have been close. This isn’t the time to cut it close. Sunday is probably the time to do it.”

Michael Waltrip, who also was in the race, broke into the post-race interview and playfully asked if Hamlin was surprised by Earnhardt’s moves.

“Well, it didn’t come alone,” Hamlin said. “I think it was because he backed up to the people behind him. They pushed him and got him a good run. That’s what he is really, really good at.

“The problem with everyone else trying to do that is when they back up to the third-place car, the third-place car usually tries to pass. With him, everyone usually commits to him, and that allows him to get those big runs.”

“Was it part of the drivers union?” Waltrip cracked.

“Well, I think they just like him better, actually,” Hamlin joked.

This wasn’t the first time Earnhardt recently has played pied piper at a restrictor-plate track. In a victory at Talladega Superspeedway last May, he led the final 27 laps with the field mostly tucked in single file at the checkered flag as it was Thursday.

Has a sense of resignation begun to set in with beating the two-time Daytona 500 winner?

“(Earnhardt) was kind of playing with us,” Austin Dillon said. “It was pretty wild to watch him move side to side and still not lose momentum.”

Said Kevin Harvick, whose No. 4 Chevrolet (fourth) seemed the next fastest in the first qualifying race: “I think you know he’s going to be tough to beat. He’s been really fast on all of these racetracks for the last couple of years. Extremely fast for the last couple of years with this particular rules package. So you knew he was going to be one of the cars to beat, and I think it will stay that way.”

Not everyone was conceding Earnhardt would be the driver to beat Sunday. After winning the second Duel, Kyle Busch said he believed Earnhardt had speed but could have been beaten if Hamlin had made different choices.

Earnhardt also expressed shock at being able to pass Hamlin and hold off Logano, the defending Daytona 500 winner.

“(Hamlin’s) great at plate racing,” Earnhardt said. “That’s obvious by his success at this track and Talladega. He’s always towards the front. When we got by him, I was really surprised. Then I was nervous when Joey got to second. Joey is very good too, obviously. He’s pretty aggressive like trying to get the lead.  He has a great race car.

“I was glad to hold them off.  … When you got such a great car, it’s hard to defend on a pass with a car like that.”

There is no doubt that Earnhardt has a great car. Nicknamed “Amelia” (as in Amelia Earhart), this No. 88 chassis won three plate races last season (a Duel, July at Daytona and May at Talladega).

“The car is awesome,” he said. “I don’t really get too confident, I don’t want to get overly confident in what I’m doing.  But the car really does everything I ask it to do.

“When you have a car that you know can do the things that this car can do, 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.

“It’s just a fun car to drive. Really special car.”

On a really special day.