Earnhardt: Daytona win extra special

DAYTONA BEACH, Florida -- Sweep Daytona's Cup races for the season? As Jimmie Johnson did last year for the first time since Bobby Allison in 1982? Big deal for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on Saturday night?

Listen: "An Earnhardt winning at Daytona is huge, period," Johnson said while reflecting on the magnitude -- should Junior pull it off in the Coke Zero 400 -- after winning the Daytona 500 back in February.

"Winning here, regardless, is a great feeling," Earnhardt said. "So you are going to try your guts out ..."

He loves this place more than any other, in spite of -- maybe even because of -- the fact that his father won more races here than any other driver and then was killed in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

Then Junior came back here in July of '01 and won the race that, arguably, launched him to the pinnacle of NASCAR popularity, where he remains to this day.

Twice since, Junior has won the Daytona 500 -- in 2004 and this year -- for a total of three Cup points wins here. He is tied with the old man, who won the 400 twice and the Daytona 500 once.

Saturday night could make it 4-3 Junior, though nobody will touch Senior's record total Daytona wins (34 in all, counting qualifiers, bonus races and IROC events) anytime soon.

Several times this week, when Earnhardt has used the simple term "winning here," the inflection in his voice alone has shown how much it means to him: just about as much as anything could mean to one person in one endeavor.

But, as usual, he doesn't want to get his or his followers' hopes too high. He went through as many disclaimers as possible, including that he won't be in the same car that won here in February; it's on display in a museum on the speedway property.

Of the car in which he'll start seventh, he said, "I'm certain it's going to be competitive, but knowing it's not the same car ... We're going to have to see if it has any different characteristics in the balance."

"He's going to be fast," Johnson said of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate. "He's going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win."

But, Johnson added, "That stat [sweeping Daytona] went 30 years for a reason. It's not easy because in plate racing anything can happen.

"If he can make it to the white-flag lap -- he's the one who gave me that phrase about, 'If you can make it to the white, and you're in the finish-line picture, you have a shot at winning,'" Johnson said. "If he can make it to the white, he will definitely be a threat."

Given that the Earnhardts have just loved to win here, which one is a taller order: the biggest race in NASCAR, the season opener, the showcase, the Daytona 500, with its long and agonizing stresses and strategies? Or this frantic sprint in the heat of the night, nearly always under the threat of thunderstorms, a race that, if it doesn't rain, is over before you know it?

"They are both similar, physically," Earnhardt said. "It's the mental picture that the Daytona 500 gives you and the pressure that comes with the spectacle. Just the drivers' meeting alone will set the tone and take you out of the race and intimidate you if you let it. There is so much happening, so many people on the pit road, and you are being thrust in front of all these people to shake hands. ...

"It won't be like that in the 400. It will be a typical race weekend. ... but all those things really take a backseat once you get in the car."

It's what the Earnhardts have been best at all along, for three generations, from Ralph to Dale to Dale Jr.: Run a summer Saturday night feature race, all out, all the time, "Go or blow," as Ralph used to say. From the short tracks of the Carolinas to Daytona, it's all pretty much the same to them.