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Sunday, February 13, 2011
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has one goal: victory

By David Newton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There'll be a No. 3 painted in the grass at the entrance to pit road and a moment of silence on the third lap of next Sunday's Daytona 500 with fans instructed to stand and hold up three fingers.

But the biggest tribute to Dale Earnhardt on the 10th anniversary of his death at Daytona International Speedway will be on the front row.

His son.

Whether you believe in coincidence, omens, a NASCAR-written fairy-tale script, fate or simply a very good restrictor-plate driver in a fast car, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start on the pole in the Great American Race.

Earnhardt
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been smiling all during Speedweeks, and he had good reason to do so again Sunday when he won the Daytona 500 pole.

It makes us momentarily forget, as was evident Sunday by the huge roar that erupted from the stands when the No. 88 went to the top of the scoring tower, the questions the governing body faces trying to reduce how long drivers sustain two-car drafts that made Saturday's Budweiser Shootout weird at best.

It reminds us of the potential Earnhardt showed 10 years ago when he finished second to then-Dale Earnhardt Inc. teammate Michael Waltrip as his father blocked before his last-lap death in Turn 4.

But Earnhardt isn't worried about any of that. Nor should he be.

"I'm here to race, and I understand the situation and I'm looking forward to seeing how my father is honored and remembered throughout the week," NASCAR's most popular driver said after his pole lap of 186.089 mph. "I don't get into the hypothetical and fairy-tale story type stuff.

"I just want to focus on my job and what I need to do. What gets me closer to Victory Lane on Sunday, that's all I'm going to concern myself with."

Earnhardt honored his father and the 3 here in July when he drove a blue and yellow Wrangler No. 3 to victory in the Nationwide Series race. That was emotional for him and many others.

What the sport needs more than for its favorite son to honor its favorite fallen hero again is for Earnhardt to emerge from the shadows of a nightmarish two seasons and become a championship contender.

A pole is nice, but a win on Sunday would do so much more.

"I want to hold the trophy at the end of the deal," Earnhardt said.

Not for his dad, but for himself.

For his career.

For his sanity.

Earnhardt Sr. would be the first to say stop making so much fuss about him, that what happened 10 years ago isn't nearly as important as what is going on today. If he were here he'd be doing exactly what Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick is, which is everything humanly possible to get Earnhardt to the top of the sport.

That and trying to figure out how to use the two-car draft to his advantage. That's what Earnhardt is focused on. He won't have something that once belonged to his father with him in the car. He won't, as he's said repeatedly the past few weeks, be involved in any prerace ceremonies.

"The only thing I really carry with me every race is something from the Bible that Stevie gives me," said Earnhardt, referring to friend Stevie Waltrip, wife of Darrell.

That's because Earnhardt is living in the present and looking ahead to the future. He knows the best way to honor his father is to work hard and live up to his potential, not the potential the rest of the world has created for him.

That's why he has committed himself to crew chief Steve Letarte's schedule over the schedule of his public relations machine. He was in the garage two and a half hours before qualifying, well ahead of any other driver, well before he might have been out of bed in past years.

"I've asked Dale to take part in how we do our business," said Letarte, who had been Jeff Gordon's crew chief since late in 2005 before Hendrick shook things up a few weeks after Jimmie Johnson won his fifth straight title. "He's jumped in with both feet."

Still, it is symbolic and maybe a little spooky when you consider Earnhardt drew the winning Budweiser bottle for the Shootout pole and now will start on the 500 pole for the first time.

Gordon
Jeff Gordon said he was excited to get his car on the front row for the Daytona 500.

That Gordon will start alongside Earnhardt resonates with symbolism. It was Gordon who replaced Earnhardt Sr. as the dominant driver in the 1990s and later became one of the Intimidator's closest friends.

It was Gordon who swapped shops and crews with Earnhardt during the offseason as a way to step up the performance of both teams. It was Gordon's former crew chief who set up Earnhardt's car for the pole run.

And it is Gordon and Earnhardt, two of the sport's biggest icons, who are mired in two of the most publicized losing streaks. Gordon has gone 65 races without visiting Victory Lane and Earnhardt 93.

"You know, things are certainly lining up in an interesting way," Gordon said. "He pulled the pole for the Bud Shootout, wins the pole for the Daytona 500, the lights went out [during Friday's practice]. ... Some strange activity happening around Daytona now."

Laughter followed.

Then maybe a chill bump.

It'll likely get stranger as the week goes on and NASCAR implements changes to the cars that will keep drivers from becoming dancing partners for more than a lap or two.

Earnhardt, by the way, prefers the large packs that made racing at Daytona unique over the two-car lockup. He wouldn't say what his dad would think of this new style, but "I'll let you guess and you'll probably be right."

Denny Hamlin says the two-car lockup takes away from the advantages Earnhardt and others who learned to master the draft had when they were dominating restrictor-plate races at Daytona and Talladega.

"Denny is right," Earnhardt said.

But don't count Earnhardt out of winning his second 500. He proved before wrecking in the Shootout he can get to the front whether he's in a two-car tandem or a 40-car pack.

And if you want another potential omen or irony, the last driver to win on his 400th career start was Earnhardt Sr. in 1992 at Charlotte.

The 500 will be Earnhardt's 400th start.

You can almost hear that strange opening song to the "Twilight Zone" playing in the background.

"That just kind of builds to the hype and excitement for next Sunday's race," Gordon said. "I love that. To bring back a lot of these memories about Dale, what he brought to the sport, his legacy, it reminds me of a lot of things I learned from him and the good times we had. It's very cool to bring attention to that and to celebrate."

But there's no better way to bring attention to Earnhardt Sr.'s legacy than to have his son carry on the family tradition.

"I just love seeing him honored and seeing him recognized," Earnhardt said of everything planned for the 500. "It'll be a good experience for me. I'm hoping Martha [Earnhardt Sr.'s mother] is watching every second of it and enjoying it.

"I hope it's a positive experience for those that need it."

But most of all, he wants to win.

Not for his father, but him.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.