DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Dale Earnhardt Jr. knew at the time his 2003 Daytona 500 win was a big deal. He was already prepared to repeat the long tumult his father faced in winning NASCAR's biggest race. Little did he know what kind of antidote that 2003 relief, as he called it Sunday, was after finishes like Sunday.
Earnhardt Jr. finished second for third time in four years when the checkered flag waved over NASCAR's biggest race.
"Running second over and over is great and all - for our team, a good start to the season," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But I would love, even having to go through the hassle that (race winner) Jimmie (Johnson) is about to go through this week, it's worth it."
Earnhardt was referring to the endless media tour Johnson embarks on this week normal for the winner of the Daytona 500. Earnhardt, though, was close to celebrating in Johnson's shoes after yet another daring and unexpected move put his No. 88 on the bumper of the leader in the final turns.
Ditching drafting partner Danica Patrick, Earnhardt got a push down the backstretch on the race's final lap from 54-year-old Mark Martin to rocket past the first woman to start first at Daytona and second-place Greg Biffle. He could never completely close the gap to Johnson's bumper through turns three and four in a move all-too-similar to his pursuit of Jamie McMurray in 2010 and Matt Kenseth last year.
"I'm ready to do it again. It's been too long," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt left Daytona carrying the torch for NASCAR's new model of race car that features styling closer to its counterpart in Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge showrooms. His attitude appeared to be at odds with many fans who used social media to complain about long periods of single-file driving during the race.
"If we would have had the old surface with this car, it would have been an incredible race," Earnhardt Jr. said, referring to pavement replaced at Daytona in 2010. "We'll get to that as the track ages. I'd hate to seem go messing with the car, trying to get a better package."
The track needs more time to age, Earnhardt Jr. said.
"The track is in good shape. It's down here next to the beach. It will wear out and age quite rapidly compared to Charlotte or some other tracks that have been repaved," said Earnhardt Jr.
Ultimately, he said, the waiting game tactics employed by drivers are more about self-preservation than a poor race vehicle.
"The car proved at the end of this Daytona 500 that it will race well and put on a good show," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That first 150 miles, everybody commits to the top. There's not enough guys to organize on the bottom. You get freight-trained. There's too much risk."
He recommends making no changes.
"The car is doing everything we hoped it would do. I think it will just get better. It's still a brand-new car," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We have a whole season and the future to improve it and learn how to make it tick. (I'm) looking forward to that."
In what's almost a recurring theme for NASCAR's most popular driver, he left Daytona appearing upbeat and positive about the sport's outlook. Maybe it was the realization that last year's late-season struggles with a concussion were fully behind him, or just the warm air in Daytona Beach.
"I noticed something (Saturday night) coming out of the track for dinner, (there) just seemed to be a different vibe inside the infield. People seemed more excited about what was getting ready to happen today," Earnhardt Jr. said.
A key beacon for the sport, Earnhardt speculated it was part of something larger.
"I think we're headed in the right direction. We may not be consistently each week, but I thought today for some reason it just felt like we're on the right track as a sport," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That's got me really excited."