DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. understands the solemn reverence and respect for his father – who died a decade ago on the last lap of the Daytona 500.
He would just as soon opt out.
“I’m here to race,” he said after winning the pole for the Daytona 500 on Sunday afternoon. “I understand the situation. I’m looking forward to seeing how my father is remembered and honored throughout the week. I’ll enjoy that. I don’t really get into the hypothetical fairy tale sort of stuff.
“I just want to focus on my job. … What gets me closer to Victory Lane on Sunday is all I’m going to concern myself with.”
Despite his polite protestations, Earnhardt is going to find it difficult not stumbling around some memory of his father this week. Daytona International Speedway officials are asking fans to hold up three fingers – a tribute to Earnhardt’s No. 3 Chevy – during the third lap of the Daytona 500. They are also asking fans for a moment of silence during that third lap.
The younger Earnhardt obviously has plenty of poignant motivation, including his own struggles. He is working with a new crew chief, Steve Letarte, after stumbling to 25th and 21st-place finishes over the last two Sprint Cup seasons.
His run of 186.089 mph Sunday was a nice start. Jeff Gordon, Earnhardt’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, qualified second. The remainder of the field will be set during Thursday’s Gatorade Duel races.
Gordon’s proximity marks an interesting twist, too, since Gordon is regarded as Earnhardt’s chief rival during the 1990s. They are considered the sport’s last great true rivalry.
“I love to bring back memories about Dale and what he brought to the sport,” Gordon said.
Earnhardt’s pole position coincided with some other significant news out of NASCAR’s hauler.
Cars will be modified for the Gatorade Duels after drivers rolled to speeds over 200 mph during the Budweiser Shootout on Saturday night. The race was also marked by two-car hookups, given the dynamics of the new asphalt on the track that provides stronger gripping and the setups on the cars. That was a significant factor in the higher speeds.
NASCAR will make changes to the cooling system to bring down temperatures in which cars can make long runs using a drafting partner – making the second car so close that the driver has to rely on his spotter to determine what line to take on the track. The intent of the change will force cars to get out of the pairs-racing strategy and slow things down.
Some drivers feared that a car could go airborne and fly in the stands in a worst-case scenario.
“These changes will probably hinder your opportunity to get that big 206 mph,” said Robin Pemberton, NASCAR’s vice president of competition. “The goal is not both be able to stay hooked up for a lengthy period of time.”
Reaction was mixed all over – from fans, media and the garage area.
“It’s not really that great having a whole bunch of groups of two and when you can’t do anything without that it isn’t really that much fun,” Ford driver Matt Kenseth said. “If you’re the pusher, you can’t see a thing and with going 207 miles an hour and pushing someone when you can’t see, it’s not a lot of fun.”