Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to set the record straight. He wants to make sure his fans know that he is in no way happy with finishing second in the Daytona 500.
“You want to come in here and make sure the press knows that you wanted to win the race, because the press are going to tell the fans what you thought, and you don't want to give anyone the impression that you are fine running second, because I'm not,” Earnhardt Jr. said after the Daytona 500 Monday night.
It marked the third time that Earnhardt Jr. has finished second in NASCAR’s biggest race, and the second time in three years.
What he is happy about, though, is that he started the season off with a strong finish.
Coming off two miserable seasons in 2009 and 2010, he finished 24th in last year’s Daytona 500 and it took strong, consistent finishes over the next few weeks to climb into the top 10 in points and prove he was a legitimate Chase contender.
So, although he came up just short – again – at Daytona, Earnhardt Jr. is happy that he’s not in a big hole to start the season again.
“I am happy with the points I got tonight, because it is a tough hole to climb out of, and this new [points] system really makes it a little different and makes you uneasy,” he said.
“I am happy to be able to come out of here and not look back throughout the season and look at this race as one of the ones where we gave some points away, like we did last year.”
Earnhardt Jr. rallied with top-10 finishes at Phoenix and Las Vegas last year to climb into the top 10 in points after three races. He then climbed as high as third in the standings with seven straight races in the top 12.
Though he struggled with inconsistency the rest of the season – and failed to win a race for the third straight year – he stayed in the top 10 and made the Chase For The Sprint Cup for the first time since 2008. He wound up seventh in the final standings, his best finish since 2006.
After finishing strong in 2011, Earnhardt Jr. is hoping to build on that momentum in 2012, return to the Chase and finally snap his 130-race winless streak.
Overall, he got off to a good start at Daytona. He led 12 laps in the Budweiser Shootout before getting caught up in a wreck, and then finished second in his Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
He was in contention to win the 500 and edged Greg Biffle for second coming to the checkered flag.
“It was a good finish for us. I'm really pleased to be able to get good points,” said Earnhardt Jr., who enters this weekend’s race at Phoenix second in the standings.
“But I'm happy for our team, too. We had a really good-looking race car, good craftsmanship, and I was real proud of that. You know, you bring such a nice car down here, and the chances of you tearing it up are pretty high. Odds are always kind of high you get caught up in something like we saw at the end of the race.
“But I was really happy to be able to take the car home in one piece, and liked the way the motor ran, liked the way the car drove.”
Now he heads to Phoenix International Raceway, where he has two wins, four top-fives and eight top-10s in 19 starts. He finished 10th in this race last year, but struggled to a 24th-place finish there in November after PIR repaved and reconfigured the track.
“When we were at Phoenix last year, the track was too smooth. Hopefully it has aged some over the winter,” he said. “But we'll go to Phoenix with a good attitude. We feel like we can go to Phoenix and run well, so we'll see how it goes.”
Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. wants to make sure his fans understand that he was neither satisfied with finishing second at Daytona, nor angry or frustrated that he didn’t win.
“No. No, sir, not at all,” he said when asked if he was upset after the race. “It’s just has been a long day, and it's just been a long night. I'm very happy. I'm really in a good place. I'm not frustrated at all, I promise; I'm in a great mood.”