Is the lead still the best place to be in final laps at Daytona?

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The best place to be in the final laps? It might not be the lead anymore at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., among those who have preferred to lead so he can block the pack, admitted he might have to change his approach after going from first to sixth in the final two laps of his qualifying race Thursday night.

“I thought leading these races might be the place to be,’’ Earnhardt said. “We’re going to have to rethink that after watching how this played out.’’

Three of the last five Cup races run at Daytona International Speedway have seen a pass for the lead in the final two laps, going back to last year’s Daytona 500.

Denny Hamlin got a significant push from Kevin Harvick and charged on the outside on the final lap of last year’s Daytona 500. When Matt Kenseth went to block Hamlin in Turn 3, Hamlin dived shot underneath and nipped Martin Truex Jr. to win.

Last weekend’s Clash saw Joey Logano win after Brad Keselowski made a move under leader Denny Hamlin in Turn 2 and they made contact when Hamlin blocked late. That allowed Logano to scoot by on the outside and win.

Thursday night, Earnhardt led but the outside line made a run that he could not block with less than two laps left.

Earnhardt knew he was in trouble when Austin Dillon, running behind Hamlin, cleared Kyle Larson. Dillon and Larson, battling for third, had been side drafting each other and that stalled both lanes.

“Once (Dillon) got clear (of Larson), you saw him take off,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s just like he’s shot out of a cannon.’’

Although the race didn’t end as Earnhardt hoped, he was pleased with his first race since missing the final 18 races last year because of concussion symptoms.

“I felt great out there,’’ Earnhardt said. “I felt like I was processing everything the way I needed to. I felt like I knew where everybody was at all times around me, even those guys you can’t see. You’ve got to have that kind of sense of understanding where your competition was at all times. I never felt I was behind on my decisions (or) behind on processing what I wanted to do and what I saw happening. Those are really good things. Seems like my brain is working the way I want it to.’’

Earnhardt said one of his favorite parts of Thursday was driver intros.

“The emotional part was probably coming through intros,’’ he said. “I know Jr. Nation is behind me, but it’s awesome when your competitors’ fans are supportive as well. It just felt good. Everybody was happy we’re back and hearing that is really, really nice.’’

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