Redemption just might be the word that was missing from Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s vocabulary.
After watching the driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Amp/National Guard sponsored Chevrolet, single-handedly make a mockery out of his 2009 season by finishing 25th in points with only two top five, and five top ten finishes.
Earnhardt knew deep down inside that it wasn’t fair to not only his fans who voted him most popular driver for a seventh time, but to the Hendrick organization who hired him to win races beginning with the 2008 season.
"There's a big sense of that I earned this, that I deserve this because of my family name,” said Earnhardt after receiving his seventh most popular driver award in Las Vegas back in December.
Earnhardt also added that, “My father, he gave me a hell of a gift in popularity, so my job has been to try to be an asset to the sport and to maintain that gift and its integrity. The name that my father has built, the Earnhardt name, and the respect that it has,”
Many of Earnhardt’s fans relished in the fact that “Little E” would finally get his chance to showcase his racing skills, knowing that the HMS organization could supply Earnhardt with the best equipment in hopes of getting him his first championship.
The Earnhardt mystique that is synonymous with NASCAR racing, got started early in the season with a win in the Bud Shootout along with a win one of the Gatorade duels a few days later.
It wasn’t long before Earnhardt would finally get his first win under the HMS banner, when he broke a 76-race winless streak going to victory lane at Michigan Speedway on June 15.
Unfortunately for Earnhardt, his career once again took a turn for the worse and even though he made the chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, he was never a factor during the 10-race stretch with two top five, and three top 10 finishes while finishing 12th in points.
With the last two seasons behind him, Earnhardt returned to Daytona with high hopes for turning his career around during the 2010 season.
"I look forward to seeing everybody, seeing the other drivers and crew members and everyone we haven't seen all offseason. I look forward to hitting the track and getting some speed and going fast,” said Earnhardt after arriving at The Daytona International Speedway.
It didn’t take long for Earnhardt to prove that he meant business, when he qualified his No. 88 Amp Energy Chevrolet on the front row next to his teammate Mark Martin.
"I'm real proud to be on the front row with my teammate, in Hendrick cars, and it's a testament to the engine shop and the fabricators," said Earnhardt, who was all smiles after qualifying second for the 52nd running of the Daytona 500.
"Those guys really make the biggest difference at Daytona. We obviously have got great individuals piecing the cars themselves together and making sure they're going to do all things we need to do in qualifying."
As the green flag waved and Earnhardt settled himself in for the long race ahead, Earnhardt began to show signs of a resurrected career when he electrified the sold-out crowd, while he taking the lead from Juan Montoya on lap No. 14.
Eight laps later, Earnhardt would relinquish the lead to Elliott Sadler, and from then on he would slowly begin to slide backwards through the pack with visions of last season's sub-par finishes, bouncing through the minds of Junior Nation.
As the race continued and the lead was exchanged a record 21 times, all that Earnhardt could do was stay out of trouble and hope that he could add his name to the list of last-lap winning passes.
Earnhardt’s wish almost came true when out of nowhere with one lap left, he muscled his way past Carl Edwards, David Reutimann, Martin Truex Jr., and Greg Biffle before setting his sights on race leader Jamie McMurray.
"It was a lot of fun. It went by so fast, I couldn't really tell you the process,” said Earnhardt.
“I just remember going down the back straightaway and getting in between Greg and I don't remember who was on the outside of me. We all kind of wiggled through that whole deal, and Jamie got away from us.”
Earnhardt also added that, “I was counting in my head how many laps we ran. I knew we were coming to the checkered; I was running second. This is awesome...but it kind of sucks at the same time. It was frustrating to come that close. But, hell, we were running 22nd at the first green-white-checkered."
Earnhardt, who had the fans on their feet as he powered his way towards a very nervous McMurray, who thought for sure his dream was about to come to abrupt halt.
"I saw the 88," McMurray said later, "and I was like, 'Crap.' "
Earnhardt had just worked his way from 10th all the way to second in less than a lap, but more importantly for those brief few seconds he was able the erase all the bad memories from the 2009 season, and give the fans a glimpse of what to hopefully expect for the upcoming season.
"It was all a blur," said Earnhardt.
“I was just going wherever they weren't. I really don't enjoy being that aggressive. But if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best. It was a lot of fun."
Little did Earnhardt realize that it would take six-plus hours before he would be able to extract himself from his race car, and look to the heavens knowing that his career just got a much-needed jump start.
The big one, referring to the multi-car pileups that are common on the superspeedways which usually bring out the red flag for extended periods of time, ended up to be an 18-inch pothole that brought out two red flags which delayed the race for about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Daytona tried her best to spoil the welcome home party for NASCAR’s most popular driver, but once again the Earnhardt mystique that mysteriously hovers over this monstrous 2.5 mile oval, was not enough to overtake the legacy that was left behind by one of NASCAR’s most prolific legends.
Not even Earnhardt’s crew chief Lance McGrew, could explain what he had just witnessed. "I have no clue how he did it," crew chief Lance McGrew said.
"Still don't know. Somehow he managed to find a hole where there wasn't a hole, and we wound up passing nine cars in two laps to finish second. Pretty impressive."
Now that the first race of the season is all but a memory, only time will tell if Earnhardt can ride the wave of momentum that he just experienced, and continue down the path to redemption.
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