DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows it will come. It just may take a little more time.
He wasn’t talking about his driving at Daytona International Speedway but that of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott, who become the youngest driver in NASCAR history to win a Daytona 500 qualifying race.
While Earnhardt, Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and a few other Daytona 500 champions deftly move from lane to lane with the artistry of a maestro leading an orchestra, the 21-year-old Elliott’s blocking style is less refined.
“I noticed that, too,’’ said Earnhardt, who watched Elliott win the first qualifying race before Earnhardt competed in the second. “That’s just experience. He’s got a great spotter, but it’s the communication between him and the spotter. I think he’ll understand as he goes how much better to interpret what he’s getting from the spotter.
“He’s also going to learn and understand how the energy of the car and the draft works to where he can anticipate these moves. He’s sort of coming late into the move and that’s fine. I was the same way. He’ll get to where he’ll see it and knows to do it and do it more and he won’t have to be so abrupt because he’s ready for it.’’
It helped that even though Kevin Harvick labeled the first qualifying race “as aggressive a duels as I’ve ever been in,’’ cool, calm and collected minds prevailed. Even with points available in this event for the first time in decades, the goal for many was to ensure their Daytona 500 car emerged unscathed from this 150-mile tune-up.
So, no there wasn’t going to be the hard charge Brad Keselowski used on the final lap of Sunday’s Clash. Drivers were going to push but there was a limit to how wild they would get.
That doesn’t mean Elliott got a free pass. Harvick challenged for the lead at times but couldn’t get around the second-year Cup driver.
“I think he did a pretty good job,’’ Harvick said of Elliott’s blocking. “There was definitely some aggressive turns back and forth. That’s what you’ve got to do. That’s part of the game. They knew when they weren’t clear and didn’t pull all the way up. I thought they did a pretty good job.’’
Elliott, who led 25 of 60 laps in the first of two qualifying races Thursday, conceded in victory lane that he learned a lot racing Keselowski and others at the front of the field.
Including last year’s qualifying race, Elliott had led only five laps in Cup at Daytona before Thursday night.
“I got some great experience being able to stay out front in those final laps,’’ Elliott said after his first Cup victory of any kind. “I know it wasn’t for a 500 win, but I feel like those guys were still trying to get some runs. I’m sure that will be amped up Sunday.’’
This also teaches him what to expect.
“I feel like really one of the biggest things I picked up on is who the players were tonight, who is going to be good on Sunday, what cars to look out for,’’ Elliott said.
“I’m eager to get back and see how good these guys do. I know with as good as our motor was running tonight, I feel like Dale is going to be tough.”
And smooth while blocking, something Elliott may need to be more of Sunday if he hopes to win the Daytona 500.