This is supposed to be a big year for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last year was his best season since 2004. He had one win, one pole, 10 Top-Five finishes and 20 Top-10 finishes. His average finish of 10.3 was a career best.
Unfortunately, based on the way things have gone at the Daytona 500 practice sessions leading up to the big race, Earnhardt seems poised to finish the Great American Race on the sidelines. That is also how he ended 2012, though that was due to a concussion that ended his Cup chances.
Dan Loumena of the Los Angeles Times noted just how bad things had gotten for Earnhardt on Wednesday before his engine failed on the 11th lap of a practice session.
Earnhardt, who triggered a multi-car accident during testing in January, didn't get his car up to speed on Wednesday, clocking an average of 191 mph, 34th out of the 35 cars in the practice session.
Which driver has the most at-stake this weekend?
Earnhardt didn't really do a lot to redeem himself in the Budweiser Duels on Thursday, though he was able to finish. He ended up coming in ninth place in the first race and will start the race in the 19th position.
Racing is a fickle sport. What happens one day can have absolutely no bearing on the next day.
However, when you are a driver like Dale Earnhardt Jr., who really struggled for so long despite remaining one of the most popular drivers on the circuit, the pressure is certainly there to perform on the biggest stage.
It also doesn't help his case that he told Jeff Gluck of USA Today Sports he is still trying to find his confidence heading into the Daytona 500.
If your confidence isn't there, you can be with the greatest team ever, but it's going to affect you, it's going to have a negative effect. So that's important that my confidence gets better as well as the team progresses. As we start to progress, it's important that I do the same thing.
You can't have any doubts about yourself or your ability when you get behind the wheel. Perhaps Earnhardt still has a subconscious concern about the concussion that cost him at the end of last season, and his driving style will change as a result.
So many factors have contributed to Earnhardt's performance in practice and the Duel this week. However, nothing he has done so far is inspiring confidence that he can win his first Daytona 500 since 2004.