Friday, January 19, 2018
Sports

Earnhardt Jr. seeks to regain Daytona 500 title

DAYTONA BEACH

When the question flew at him this month at NASCAR's media day, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bristled. • Could he wreck the No. 3 car his dad made famous to win a race? • "I haven't wrecked anybody to win a race in a long time," Earnhardt said. "But we haven't won many races, either." • No, Earnhardt hasn't. His No. 88 Chevrolet has claimed one checkered flag in the past five seasons. • But after a disappointing run when NASCAR's most popular driver was outside the top 20 in points two years in a row, Earnhardt has regained his form. He has had three of the best seasons of his career and starts ninth at Daytona International Speedway in today's Daytona 500. • "Since I've been at Hendrick and spent more time with him, he's been super focused and aware of what's going on," Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne said. "And that's shown on the racetrack." • It wasn't always like that.

After winning 15 races in his first five full Sprint Cup seasons, Earnhardt struggled. He missed the season-ending Chase for the Championship in 2005, 2007 and 2009-10. He sandwiched a 76-race winless streak and a 143-race winless streak around a checkered flag at Michigan in 2008.

His problems also had a negative impact on the sport as a whole. Andrew Maness of nascarnomics.com estimates that television ratings jump 5 percent the week after an Earnhardt victory; Chase ratings are also up slightly when Earnhardt is involved compared to when he's out of the picture.

Earnhardt finally turned things around in 2011, when he finished seventh in points. He's one of only five drivers to make the Chase each of the past three years.

"I've watched the (No.) 88 and watched Junior grasp things, really kind of help the company pull in and find the direction where to go," said Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's six-time champion and Hendrick teammate.

In the past two seasons, Earnhardt, 39, ranks sixth in top-five finishes (20). His average finishing position, 11.8, is fifth. Only Johnson has more top 10s than Earnhardt (42).

And if NASCAR had used its new Chase format last season, and all the results had been the same, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup title. He finished in the top eight in eight of the last nine races and ended the season with three straight top-four showings to finish fifth in points — his best since 2006.

"I thought we had a good season and a real good Chase," Earnhardt said. "If we had some bonus points and some sort of a top-15 in Chicago (where he finished 35th in the first race of the Chase), it might have been a totally different year for us."

But the key for another strong season and competing for his first championship will come in the area where he has struggled: winning races.

His 55-race winless streak is the longest of any driver on one of NASCAR's five power teams. Earnhardt grabbed the pole at Dover and led 80 laps but still ended up second. He led 38 laps at Talladega and finished second. And he has settled for runnerup in the past two Daytona 500s.

"But none of those races did I have a situation where I went, 'Gah, I let it slip by,' " Earnhardt said. "I messed up right there. Most of the time we ran our guts out and came to the finish line and just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race."

So what happens if Earnhardt is battling Austin Dillon's No. 3 Chevrolet? Will Earnhardt hold back against the number his dad made famous, at the track where he died?

"That wouldn't be a difficult situation for me at all," Earnhardt said. "I wouldn't think twice about who I'm racing on the last lap."

All that matters is a long-awaited win.

Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

Comments
What do Rays look like now? What will they look like March 29?

What do Rays look like now? What will they look like March 29?

ST. PETERSBURG — Since entering an off-season planning major change and pledging to be open to "anything and everything,'' the Rays have made a few minor moves and one massive one in trading franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria to San Francisco....
Updated: 13 minutes ago
Happy 15th anniversary to the greatest play in Bucs history: Ronde Barber shuts down the Vet

Happy 15th anniversary to the greatest play in Bucs history: Ronde Barber shuts down the Vet

Fifteen years ago today, cornerback Ronde Barber made what's considered the greatest play in Bucs  history, returning an interception of Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb 92-yards for a game-clinching touchdown in a 27-10 win in the NFC Champio...
Updated: 22 minutes ago
Quarterback or bust for Quinton Flowers in the NFL?

Quarterback or bust for Quinton Flowers in the NFL?

ST. PETERSBURG — Reps have been priceless for Quinton Flowers this week, each to be maximized and handled with care.Yet he couldn't avoid handling some clumsily.On the opening day of practice for the East-West Shrine Game at Shorecrest Prep, Fl...
Updated: 1 hour ago
NFL Playoffs: Reconsidering the franchise quarterback imperative

NFL Playoffs: Reconsidering the franchise quarterback imperative

TAMPA — So much for needing a franchise quarterback to reach the Super Bowl.Sure, the Patriots Tom Brady is back in his seventh straight conference championship game and his 12th overall. But check out the other schlubs under center SundayIt's ...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Jameis Winston shares MLKís message: Donít lose infinite hope

Jameis Winston shares MLKís message: Donít lose infinite hope

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston, only weeks removed from a disappointing 2017 season, had a relevant but larger message for teenagers on Friday morning: Don't let small setbacks keep you from your dreams."If you have a phone, if you have a pen and pa...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Greatest moment in Tampa Bay sports history happened 15 years ago today

Greatest moment in Tampa Bay sports history happened 15 years ago today

Happy Friday, Tampa Bay.Fifteen years ago today, Ronde Barber intercepted Donovan McNabb to shut down Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium and send the Bucs to the Super Bowl. Times columnist Tom Jones and many others consider this the greatest moment in ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rick and Tom podcast: Super Bowl berths on the line

Rick and Tom podcast: Super Bowl berths on the line

In their latest podcast, Rick Stroud and Tom Jones look back at last weekís playoff games to break down the upcoming conference championship games.Rick and Tom agree that New England should roll over Jacksonville but disagree on Minnesota-Philadelphi...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Reminder: Rays spring tickets go on sale today at 10 a.m.

Reminder: Rays spring tickets go on sale today at 10 a.m.

The Rays will put single game tickets for spring training home games on sale today at 10 a.m. via raysbaseball.com.The Rays are playing 14 home games in Port Charlotte, starting with the Feb. 23 opener vs. Pittsburgh. Tickets will be available at the...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Tampa Bay Rays 2018 spring training schedule

Tampa Bay Rays 2018 spring training schedule

Charlotte Sports Park, 2300 El Jobean Rd., Port Charlotte, 33948Get tickets here: (941) 206-4487Pitchers report: Feb. 13. Squad reports: Feb. 19TEAM SCHEDULE(games at 1:05 unless noted)(ss - split squad)Feb 23 at Orioles (ss) (Sarasota)Feb 23 PIRATE...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Ex-Phillies, Indians manager Charlie Manuel to get Ted Williams Museum award

Ex-Phillies, Indians manager Charlie Manuel to get Ted Williams Museum award

Former Phillies and Indians manager Charlie Manuel will receive the Ted Williams Lifetime Achievement Award on Feb. 10 in Clearwater.The honor is bestowed by the Ted Williams Museum at its annual Hitters Hall of Fame induction, moving this year from ...
Updated: 5 hours ago