In so many ways, it would be perfect if Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove to Victory Lane for what is likely his last time out at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday in the Coke Zero 400.
Every weekend, he gets closer to retiring from racing full-time — which he said he’s doing at the end of the 2017 season — and with every race he doesn’t win, it becomes a little more likely the 14-time most popular driver won’t qualify for the NASCAR Cup Series 10-race playoffs this fall.
But if he won on a track where he’s found success so many times before, he could lock himself into the 16-driver postseason to compete for his first championship, and JR Nation would go absolutely nuts. Although Earnhardt hasn’t won a race since November 2015, here are four realistic reasons why he could get his first win of the season at Daytona.
1. Time doesn’t matter
Junior hasn’t won at Daytona since the 2015 Coke Zero 400, but that doesn’t mean much. He went 10 years without a win at the iconic track after the 2004 Daytona 500, but he took the checkered flag at the season opener again in 2014. A decade of falling short didn’t stop him from ending up in Victory Lane again, so it’s completely reasonable he could do it after a much smaller gap.
2. Earnhardts win at superspeedways
Winning at Daytona and Talladega Superspeedway — the Cup Series’ two tracks that require restrictor plates — is a family tradition. Dale Earnhardt Sr. won three times at Daytona and a record 10 times at Talladega. Junior has won four times at Daytona and six at Talladega, and as NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip told FTW earlier this season, Dale Jr. has “a real knack” for figuring out how to win at these restrictor-plate tracks.
“It’s really an Earnhardt legacy,” Waltrip said. “And (Dale Jr.) told me not long ago that he loves adding to those numbers that he and his dad have at those two tracks. I don’t know if it’s a car thing, I don’t know if it’s a driver thing, I don’t know what causes him and his dad to be so good at those two tracks, but they are.
“They always said that his dad could see the air. You and I both know that’s probably not possible, but I think what he could do was feel the air that comes off these cars going 200 miles an hour and then (knew) how to utilize it to your advantage.”
3. This No. 88 Chevy is fast
By the end of practice Thursday, Earnhardt’s car led the pack with the top speed at 193.328 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile track. While practice speeds don’t always translate to race wins — neither do qualifying positions — if the best driver isn’t in a fast car, there’s not much chance for a victory.
“When I get the car that I need or when I’ve had the cars that I’ve had that were so good here, you could just do whatever you wanted with them,” Earnhardt said during his press conference Friday. “If you know a little bit about what you’re doing, you can make some things happen and control the race.”
If he can stay away from the expected, multi-car wrecks during Saturday’s race — like the one that ended his day earlier this season at the Daytona 500 —given his success at practice, there’s a good chance he could be a contender during the 400’s final laps.
(Qualifying for the Coke Zero 400 is set for Friday afternoon on NBCSN.)
4. It’s sentimental
Although Earnhardt admitted earlier this week he hasn’t been emotional on his farewell tour since announcing his retirement plan in April, that may change during his final race day at Daytona.
Friday, Earnhardt described Daytona as a “very special race track for me and my family.” So with just 10 regular-season races left, this might be his best shot at securing a playoff spot, and the nostalgia could give him an extra boost.
Update No. 5 reason: He’s starting on the pole
Friday evening, Earnhardt had the fastest time in both qualifying rounds, winning his 14th career pole. Junior also won the pole the last time he took the checkered flag at Daytona for the 2015 Coke Zero 400, and now that he’s starting Saturday’s race up front, it’s just one more reason he could win his last Daytona outing.