He nearly got it, too.
Earnhardt wildly zigzagged through the field in the final two laps of Sunday’s Daytona 500, somehow surging from 10th to second and nearly chasing down race winner Jamie McMurray during NASCAR’s version of overtime.
A couple of lengthy stoppages for track repairs certainly let some of the air out of NASCAR’s Super Bowl, but at least Earnhardt made it a show at the end.
“Tonight I just let it all hang out,” Earnhardt said. “If there was a hole in the middle, I went there — wherever it was.”
To Earnhardt, the runner-up finish was both awesome and frustrating. He hasn’t won a race since June 2008 and missed the Chase last season, and is facing intense pressure to perform for Hendrick Motorsports this season.
Sunday’s great run at Daytona isn’t necessarily an indication that he’ll be good at other NASCAR tracks. But it was a healthy shot of momentum for a team looking to kick-start its season.
“You know, I look forward to seeing how we are as a team,” Earnhardt said. “Like I said, this is not a true gauge on what the changes are going to do to our team. The next couple racetracks will definitely give us a better understanding of where we are.”
At least Earnhardt seems to be back to his old self at one of his favorite tracks.
“Y’all know how I feel about Daytona,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a special place.”
Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and the July Daytona race in 2001, but had finished 27th or worse in four of his last six Sprint Cup races at the track where an accident claimed his father’s life in 2001.
In three of those six races, he failed to even lead a lap.
Earnhardt said he might have driven too conservatively at Daytona in recent years.
“I figured, ’What do I have to do to finish one of these things and finish it good?”’ Earnhardt said. “I might have been a little too careful, you know?”
He made a remarkable move between Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer on the final lap, but couldn’t quite get to McMurray’s back bumper.
“You know, I believe everything happens for a reason,” McMurray said. “I just was like, ’I hope this isn’t his turn to win the Daytona 500, I hope this is mine.”’
Earnhardt’s dramatic charge came during NASCAR’s second attempt at a “green-white-checker” finish, an overtime-like provision intended to make it less likely that races will end under caution. The rule was tweaked during Speedweeks to allow for up to three attempts at a green-flag finish, instead of just one.
Earnhardt said he was in 22nd going into the final laps of regulation, but cautions caused NASCAR to add extra laps to the race and gave him the chance to charge forward.
Earnhardt praised NASCAR’s new hands-off approach to governing driver behavior, saying it made him more comfortable making aggressive moves without fear of punishment.
“They made a lot of good choices on what to do to sort of put the racing back into the drivers’ hands,” Earnhardt said. “There was a ton of bumping out there. I never once felt like anybody was looking over my shoulder, you know. I mean, everybody took care of everybody as far as I know.”
Still, Earnhardt said Sunday’s strong finish didn’t exactly dull the financial pain from Saturday’s Nationwide race. Earnhardt flipped and completely tore up his car in a wreck, and teammate Danica Patrick heavily damaged her car when she got caught up in a crash. The Nationwide race was a rough day for JR Motorsports, the family race team that Earnhardt co-owns.
Earnhardt said Saturday the bill to replace his Nationwide car and repair Patrick’s could total approximately $200,000. The total bill for bringing a pair of Nationwide cars to Daytona was even more.
“No, no, nothing will dull that — unless someone has a $600,000 check they want to give me,” Earnhardt said.