DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
It’s been years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. was a non-factor during Speedweeks.
He finished second in the Budweiser Shootout and the Daytona 500 last year. He was the pole-sitter for the 500 in 2011, the 10-year year anniversary of his father’s death at Daytona International Speedway. He started second and finished second in 2010, weaving his way through traffic in a frantic final lap.
He typically garners headlines and the majority of the attention leading up to NASCAR’s “Great American Race,” an event forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.
This year, Earnhardt has been a mere footnote.
He qualified 19th for Sunday’s Daytona 500, his lowest starting spot in 14 years at NASCAR’s premier event. His confidence remains high, possibly because he’s glad to be rid of the clunky Car of Tomorrow and the tricky tandem racing that came with it at repaved Daytona.
“We’ve got a good car,” Earnhardt said. “Anybody can win, but we’ve got a good piece. If we get that balance right and get the thing to turning good, we’ll have a great shot.”
Early results say otherwise.
Earnhardt wrecked several cars during a Daytona test in January. He didn’t lead a lap in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited last week and finished eighth in what boiled down to a 12-car field. He was off the leaders’ pace in his 150-mile qualifying race Thursday and came home ninth.
Those race results tend to be an indicator of who’s the one to beat in the Daytona 500.
So it’s no surprise that Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and even Sprint Cup rookie Danica Patrick have gotten more hype than Earnhardt.
Trevor Bayne has his Nationwide ride exactly where it ended the past two seasons: in front of the field.
The 2011 Daytona 500 winner earned the pole for Saturday’s Nationwide Series season opener. Bayne turned the fast lap during qualifying at Daytona International Speedway on Friday, averaging 177.162 mph around the 2 1/2-mile superspeedway.
Bayne is driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing, the car Ricky Stenhouse Jr. piloted to the past two championships in the second-tier series.
Former IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. will start second, followed by Parker Kligerman, action sports star Travis Pastrana and Austin Dillon.
Full-time Sprint Cup Series drivers Kyle Busch (seventh), Matt Kenseth (ninth), Tony Stewart (10th), Brad Keselowski (11th), Danica Patrick (12th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (13th) and Kasey Kahne (19th) also are entered in today’s 300-mile race.
Johnny Sauter has won the NASCAR Truck Series season opener, his first victory at Daytona International Speedway.
Sauter led the final 17 laps and held off Kyle Busch before a last-lap wreck forced the 250-mile race to finish under caution Friday night.
Sauter says, “I can’t believe I’m in Victory Lane in Daytona.”
Ryan Blaney, the 19-year-old son of Hartford native Dave Blaney, finished eighth and won $16,610.