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Friday, July 6, 2012
Updated: July 7, 7:10 PM ET
Casino de Daytona one big gamble

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The biorhythms of Daytona in July are perennially the same, sultry laziness of preparation in the stifling heat, followed by the explosion, the frantic sprint of 400 miles.

And so the teams have been typically lackadaisical about practice going into Saturday night's Coke Zero 400. But once the green flag drops and the fireworks start -- the sparks flying from the rubbing sheet metal ...

Dale Earnhardt Jr., going for his second Cup win in three weeks, figures the only way to handle this roulette-wheel event, this shortest of all restrictor-plate races, is to be a lot like ... well ... Dale Earnhardt Sr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his winning strategy at Daytona: "Just be the biggest jerk you can be out there, and that is the way it's got to be if you want to get to Victory Lane."

Earnhardt didn't invoke his late father's name specifically, but his language, his pauses and his chuckles gave him away.

"You need really to be as selfish as you can be," Earnhardt said. "Just be the biggest jerk you can be out there, and that is the way it's got to be if you want to get to Victory Lane.

"You ain't gonna do it by expecting favors [from drafting partners], you just have to go out there and take it from people," Earnhardt continued. "And if you can get to Victory Lane you don't have to worry about having somebody tell you, 'That was stupid.'"

That's it. There's a razor's edge between a brilliant move and a foolish one as the cars scramble like pieces in a kaleidoscope.

"It's tough," Earnhardt said.

Then the pause, then the chuckle, then the dead giveaway, the clarity of the silence.

This kind of race was right up his old man's alley -- he won the 400 twice while struggling through winlessness in the Daytona 500 until his 20th try -- and Earnhardt knew that.

But the selfishness, the ruthlessness, "is not my mentality," he said with another tipoff chuckle. "I don't think of myself as a jerk, but you kind of have to be one if you want to win at the end of these races, more times than not."

Earnhardt Jr. broke a 143-race losing streak two weeks ago at Michigan, and since then has indicated that his appetite for winning -- he'd won 18 Cup races before his drought -- has been re-whetted.

"When you're winning consistently, you feel like all eight cylinders are hitting," he said here Friday. "You feel like you are accomplishing what you're supposed to. ... You're going out doing the job that you get up in the morning to do."

Earnhardt hasn't won a points race here since the 2004 Daytona 500, but in February here, he finished a strong second while battling solo against the Roush team tandem of Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle.

"I feel like every time we're going to Daytona and Talladega [the two plate tracks], it really comes down to the driver making the right choices and doing the right thing in the race," he said.

His Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet should be "good enough to compete up front," he said of Saturday night's race.

But the Kenseth-Biffle tag team promises to be back just as strong as in February, when Kenseth won and Biffle finished third after they dominated the second half of the race.

And Brad Keselowski, who outfoxed Kenseth-Biffle to win the most recent plate race, at Talladega in May, comes in with the most Cup wins of any driver, off his victory at Kentucky last week.

"Here, the race cars obviously have more to do with success or failure than at some of the other tracks," Kenseth said, "so you have to have that -- and we've had that so far this year at the plate races."

NASCAR has relaxed its tandem-racing preventative, radiator pressures, a bit in consideration of the heat. The popoff valve trigger pressure has been increased from 28 pounds per square inch to 32.

But that doesn't mean drivers will risk overheating with tandem racing any more than in February, Biffle figures.

The change "translates to about an equal amount of time to what we could do in February, because of the hotter ambient temperature," Biffle said. "It's hotter outside, so they give us a little more PSI so we don't overheat or can stay tucked in a pack."

The way Keselowski projects it, the race will be a mixture of the pack racing fans like and the two-by-two style the drivers know will make them quick.

"I don't think there will be one style of racing that will be prevalent," Keselowski said. "I think we'll see different styles based on the situations."

Ideally, teammates try to hook up and work together in plate races, but it doesn't always work out -- and that's what Earnhardt meant about being selfish in the crunch.

"I've won races working with my teammates before," Earnhardt said. "I've won races being the most selfish guy out there."

And there's little time to decide, once plate racing's night sprint starts. Either the roulette ball falls into your slot at Casino de Daytona in the sweltering summer, or it doesn't.