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Can Dale Earnhardt Jr. recapture that Daytona magic?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- once NASCAR's king of plate racing. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   This is where it all really began for Dale Earnhardt Jr., eight years ago, back in the heart wrenching summer of 2001.
   Now, after three so-so years on the NASCAR tour, is this where he can jump-start things again?
   Once Earnhardt was the terror of these big tracks: He won the 2004 Daytona 500, and he won four straight plate races at Talladega. And when he wasn't winning, he was helping then-teammate Michael Waltrip score.
   But since his Talladega win in the fall of 2004, Earnhardt has been shut out in tour events at the sport's two fastest, biggest tracks.
   So what to expect here this weekend?
   Likely another surprise. NASCAR's on a roll that way, with Kasey Kahne scoring the upset at Sonoma, and Joey Logano at Loudon, N.H.
   Here – the last seven Daytona Cup races have been won by seven different drivers: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Ryan Newman, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson.
    And then there's that cloud of the Talladega finale just two months ago – with Carl Edwards nearly flipping in the grandstands
   If NASCAR officials have made any changes because of that near disaster, they're not saying, though drivers have been pushing for NASCAR to do something.
   "I think what goes on at Talladega -- the way that race is – that's the one the focus needs to be on, for things they can do to minimize the chances for the wreck," Edwards says.
   "I guess a better way to put that is to turn it into more of a race, instead of a spectacle.

Carl Edwards' E-ride at Talladega (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    "But I understand where NASCAR's at," Edwards says. "We had this talk, and I understand their position.
    "There's the history of the sport…and other than knocking down the banking there, there's really nothing you can do to change that place and make it a different type of race.
    "I have a feeling NASCAR is going to impose different rules or penalties for that place.
    "But it looks like we'll go to Daytona and race the same way we have.
    "I guess we'll just have to see how it goes."
    The specific issue in the Edwards crash at Talladega is NASCAR's no-passing-below-the-yellow line rule. NASCAR denied Regan Smith victory in the fall of 2007 when he finished first after being forced below the yellow line by Tony Stewart while passing the final lap. In a replay in April, Brad Keselowski -- when facing the same move, with Edwards moving low to block him and force him either below the yellow line or to back off – held his line. The two crashed, Edwards went flipping, bounced off the hood of Ryan Newman's car, and ripped part of the frontstretch fence.
   That same out-of-bounds rule is in effect here.

   Sometimes it seems like winning at Daytona changes a team's dynamic….and not always in a positive way.
   Kenseth, for example. His win here in February, followed a week later by the win in California, seemed to set the stage for a good season. But he's floundered since.
   "That was cool we won in the spring, but that's already a long time ago," Kenseth frets. "It's totally way different going there in July.
   "You’ve got to keep concentrating on the task at hand and the next challenge and the next week, and you can't really spend the season thinking about a win that you had."
   Kenseth, like many on the tour this season, sometimes almost feels lost, particularly in light of the amazing success of the Rick Hendrick bunch.
   "Michigan, I think, statistically is my best track…and we ran 20th," Kenseth says of the past few weeks.

Matt Kenseth's Daytona surprise! Will Saturday night's Daytona 400 produce yet another surprise? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Kenseth is car owner Jack Roush's only winner so far this season, and the year's half over. Can Carl Edwards catch fire?
   Edwards almost beat Kyle Busch here last summer: "Kyle and I had a great battle, then they threw that caution. There's no telling what would have happened if we had raced back to the checkered flag.
    "That was heading to being a great race.
    "I like Daytona. Until they repave it, it's going to be, by far, the best restrictor-plate track we have, because it gets slippery and bumpy, and you have to use the setup to run well.
   "The first few laps (on fresh tires), restrictor-plate racing is not my favorite type of racing. But once you get past all the tires, and everybody having a ton of grip, you start going into the corner and the cars are bouncing and sliding around."
   Of course NASCAR's new double-file restarts could thus once again be a factor, with drivers trying to get the most they can out of the first few laps of fresh rubber.
   What about Logano? After becoming NASCAR's youngest winner ever, can he keep up the good runs he's shown over the past two months? At Talladega he finished ninth; over the last 10 tour events he's moved up to 21st in the Sprint Cup standings. In February here, after nearly winning his 150-mile qualifier, he wound up in a big crash in the rain-shortened 500 and finished last.
   Teammate Kyle Busch won this 400 last summer. And car owner Joe Gibbs has won three of the last four NASCAR plate races.

Joey Logano: The Lobster King of Loudon (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


The biggest thing Logano has shown this year is the ability to keep his nose clean, not that easy for rookie who hasn't seen many of these tracks before race weekend, because of NASCAR's no-testing rules.
   The New Hampshire win, Logano says, "was huge for us -- it keeps building our momentum.
   "Right now every point counts -- 100 points can move you up to 17th or drop you back to 24th. 
   "So our goal is to finish solidly in the top-20."
   Saturday night's 400, though, Logano concedes "is still going to be a difficult race for me.  I didn't get to run as many laps at Daytona as I wanted to in February…and it is so different than Talladega. 
   "Daytona is about handling. And when we did the tire test, it was slick.  I can only imagine in the heat of July how much hotter it will be and slicker it will be.
    "I know everyone is in the same boat, but at least they have an idea of what to expect. 
    "If we can get out of Daytona with a solid finish, Chicago (next week's stop) should be a good race for us."
   In fact crew chief Greg Zipadelli says this 400 will be a test for Logano for next season's 500: "The most important thing is that Joey needs to learn so when we go back in February he can continue to progress.
   "Daytona is going to be tough for us. We didn't get to run that many laps, because we wrecked in the Shootout and the 500.
    "Joey did get a good run in at Talladega, and a lot of drafting practice. But that is a little bit easier track since they repaved it.
    "Daytona is going to be the slickest, hottest, hardest track to get around that we go to this year.
    "We are going to work hard and make sure we don't put ourselves in a bad position, so we can run all day."

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates in victory lane with team owner Rick Hendrick after winning the Budweiser Shootout at Daytona February 9, 2008. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

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