Earnhardt, Danica earning respect

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Maybe for the first time ever in his career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was just another guy during all the buildup to the Daytona 500.

Danica Patrick was the star all week, giving Earnhardt rare secondary attention status at Daytona. And she kept it up Sunday, running in front of Earnhardt most of the day while becoming the first woman to lead the race.

She had Earnhardt covered, until the end.

Jerry Lai/USA TODAY Sports

Jimmie Johnson races Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line in the 55th running of the Daytona 500.

A last-lap shuffle moved Earnhardt past Patrick to his second consecutive runner-up finish in the Daytona 500. Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt's Hendrick Motorsports teammate, was the winner.

So was Patrick in many ways, despite watching Earnhardt, her former boss, zoom past her on the final lap. Patrick finished eighth, the first woman to post a top-10 showing in the Daytona 500.

In some ways, Earnhardt and Patrick are kindred spirits, two racers with enormous mainstream popularity, but two drivers who are much-maligned as being overhyped while underdelivering on performance.

So they understand each other and respect each other. And Sunday, in NASCAR's biggest event, they raced each other hard, each with a chance to win on the last lap.

When the white flag waved, Patrick was a surprising third. Earnhardt was right behind her.

Not for long. Earnhardt, a comparative old pro at this event, gave Patrick a restrictor-plate lesson. He made his move, got out of line, got a push from an older pro, Mark Martin, and they freight-trained by Patrick. A few other drivers did as well.

"Dale did a nice job," Patrick said, with Earnhardt sitting next to her in the media center. "He showed what can happen when you plan it out at the end and get that momentum. He taught me something."

That didn't start Sunday. Earnhardt was instrumental in helping Patrick get where she is. He put her in his Nationwide Series car when she made the move from IndyCar.

They are good friends, but they were all-out competitors Sunday. It was every man, or woman, for himself when the Daytona 500 was on the line with one lap to go.

"We got a lot of help from Mark Martin [who finished third] at the end," Earnhardt said. "I was hoping he was thinking what I was thinking. We got a run on the backstretch, but we couldn't keep it going into Turn 4. I lost my help and couldn't get to Jimmie."

Patrick didn't get any help at the end, but Earnhardt said her performance Sunday shows she can race with the big boys.

"She's going to make a lot of history all season long,'' he said. "It's going to be a lot of fun to watch her progress. Every time I've seen her in a hectic situation, she always remained calm. She's got a level head. She's a racer. She's smart about her decisions. She knew what to do today as far as track position and not taking risks.

"I had no problem drafting with her," Earnhardt said. "She was good all week. But I was trying to get the best finish I could and have a shot to win the race. I was going to go with who I thought would help me move forward. Sometimes she was in that spot and sometimes she wasn't."

Earnhardt, the 2004 Daytona 500 winner, has finished second in three of the past five Daytona 500s. Last year was one of the best seasons of his career before he was sidelined for two Chase races with the effects of a concussion.

He believes starting 2013 with a strong run at Daytona can give his team the momentum it needs for a big year.

"This was a great finish for us, and we're going to be strong this year,'' he said. "I think it's important to get off to a good start, points-wise. We're a good team. Hopefully we can keep the pressure on, stay in the top five and win some races. I really want to win more races. That's our focus."

Earnhardt ended his four-year losing streak last season with a victory at Michigan. He believes more victories are the key to winning a championship in 2013. He's convinced the No. 88 Chevy team has bigger and better days ahead.

Earnhardt also believes better days are ahead for NASCAR, despite the horrific crash Saturday in the Nationwide Series race that injured at least 28 fans, and a Daytona 500 Sunday that didn't have much action until the final laps.

"I noticed something last night,'' he said. "There's a different vibe. People seemed more excited about what was about to happen. I think the sport is headed in the right direction. That's a motivator for me. It feels like we're on the right track."

Earnhardt feels the same way about his team. He has something to prove. So does Patrick.

Earnhardt wants to show he can contend for the Cup title. Patrick wants to show she can race competitively with NASCAR's best drivers.

They are the biggest celebrities in the sport, but they want to be seen as respected racers more than pop stars.

On this day at Daytona, they both reached that goal.

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