It took the elder Earnhardt 17 tries to win NASCAR's biggest event.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- In the NASCAR garages, the refrain heading into the Daytona 500 goes something like this: "If Junior don't break or crash, ain't nobody gonna catch him."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has followed his late father as perhaps the best superspeedway racer in Winston Cup action, and few can dispute the kid is the favorite going into today's race.
His father won seven Winston Cup championships and 76 races before his death here two years ago. He often said none of his accomplishments was more precious to him than winning the 1998 Daytona 500.
It took the elder Earnhardt 17 tries to win NASCAR's biggest event, although he came close several times. Junior doesn't plan to wait that long, yet he's somewhat amazed to be in position to do it on his fourth try.
"The strange thing about it for me, though, is that I have a chance to win it so early," the 28-year-old scion said.
Earnhardt pointed out that his father didn't have a strong ride here for most of his early years and didn't become a real contender until his second stint driving for Richard Childress began in 1984.
After that, Earnhardt Sr. became a dominant force at Daytona, winning every preliminary race and the July Cup race multiple times. But he couldn't seem to make the magic happen in the race he wanted most.
In 1990, The Intimidator was leading until running over a piece of metal and blowing a tire with half a lap to go. That gave the victory to Derrick Cope and broke Earnhardt's heart again.
"I was a teenager and I remember how hard it was and, I mean, it hurt," Junior said. "When he cut the tire in front of Cope that year, those were tough, tough times. It was awful. It just ruined the whole deal."
The heartache he saw and felt over his dad's near-misses, and the joy he experienced when Dale Sr. finally won, have made the season-opening race just as special to Junior.
"Going through that, I realize how big this race is," he said.
Acknowledging his role as the favorite, Junior added, "I'm probably going to look back 10 or 15 years from now and wish I had a chance to do it all over again if I don't win this race because I'm going to have all this experience and go, 'Man, what the heck?'
"Hopefully, I'll win it and I won't have to worry about that."
If he does win today, it will take more than pure speed.
NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates at Daytona to keep the cars under 200 mph, an effort to make the race safer for drivers and spectators.
An unwanted side-effect of the horsepower-sapping plates is bunching the field in huge packs with cars drafting two- and three-wide at up to 190 mph. A spectacular multicar crash is virtually a given during races here and at Talladega Superspeedway, the only track where the plates are used.
NASCAR's solution to pack racing is a small fuel cell, forcing the cars to pit more often and, hopefully, stringing out the field. The tanks -- 13 gallons as opposed to the usual 22 -- were first used last fall at Talladega and the results were mixed.
Thursday's twin 125-mile qualifying races were the first time the drivers got to see the effects of the smaller tank on Daytona's 21/2-mile oval. It was the first time in more than a decade that a pit stop was needed in the 50-lap races.
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