DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The chances are dwindling for Dale Earnhardt Jr. this season, the final shot for NASCAR’s most popular driver to win a coveted Cup title.
First he has to make the playoffs, and his best opportunity at one of those 16 slots is a win tonight at Daytona International Speedway.
Earnhardt will start from the pole, the first time in nearly four years that his No. 88 Chevrolet will lead the field to the green flag. Next to him will be Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate who has made clear that he’ll pass Earnhardt to win at Daytona even though Earnhardt is scheduled to retire at the end of the year.
“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” said Earnhardt, who is winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the playoff picture. “Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically.”
In winning his first pole since September 2013, Earnhardt is eligible to run a preseason race next February at Daytona.
“I’ll talk to my boss and see what he has in the shed,” Earnhardt quipped.
Earnhardt is on a farewell tour and admittedly afraid to miss a moment in his final, full-time season. He’s feeling nostalgic — even though he’s made clear he’ll race a handful of Xfinity Series events in 2018 — and in two insightful visits to the media center Friday, he touched on his favorite Daytona memories.
He recalled eating fried chicken at a post-race picnic to celebrate Richard Petty’s 200th victory, which came with President Ronald Reagan on hand. And there was the 1999 IROC race at Michigan in which Rusty Wallace inexplicably helped rival Dale Earnhardt Sr. instead of pushing Junior to the win.
He recalled spending Speedweeks as a kid in beachside hotels.
“You’d have drivers in the pool after practice,” he said. “That was cool for those guys to be able to do that.”
He also weighed in on “Days of Thunder,” the NASCAR-centered movie released in 1990 that surely helped popularize the racing circuit, and stoked a decades-old rumor that his famous father was offered the role of Rowdy Burns.
“This is all hearsay because nobody was in the room but dad, the producer and director and (Tom) Cruise,” Junior said, recalling Cruise having pimples and being a foot shorter than he expected. “They go into dad’s office and they come out 30 minutes later, and I guess they were picking dad’s brain. But the rumor was they offered dad the role of Rowdy Burns. I don’t know if that is really true or not, but that was the rumor. But dad turned it down because he didn’t want to play the bad guy.”
Elliott welcomes being the bad guy tonight, if he gets the chance. But he also said Earnhardt has a different edge this week.
“I won’t say he has a chip on his shoulder, but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,” Elliott said. “He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect, and I think he has made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings.
“Yes, I think he is very determined to run well here.”
Earnhardt was the final driver to qualify and bumped Elliott to second. It was a strong day overall for Hendrick, with Kasey Kahne qualifying fourth. Wedged between the top Hendrick cars was Brad Keselowski, who qualified his Ford third for Team Penske.
All the attention, though, was on Earnhardt. No surprise for NASCAR’s favorite son, especially this weekend.
Although Earnhardt expects to race at Daytona in the future, his trip to NASCAR’s birthplace is being treated like a career finale.
The track developed a “Daletona” mosaic in the stadium’s Axalta Injector that allows fans to create a piece of artwork to commemorate what could be Earnhardt’s final start at Daytona. Officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in “The Great American Race.”
“A lot of great things have happened here,” he said. “A lot of drivers have made their careers here. It is something to be proud of if you are in the industry. It is a pretty fun race track.”
He hasn’t gotten too emotional yet. But he expects the weight of walking away to hit him during the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.
“I’m not having any anxiety about the end coming,” he said. “I feel pretty good about that. I feel pretty good about my decision. I haven’t had any second-guesses or regrets about that. So, I don’t believe I will have any anxiety as it starts to get closer to Homestead. I just don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to miss a moment that I should take in. I don’t want to miss opportunity to let people know how much they mean to me, everybody in the industry means to me.”