DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When Dale Earnhardt Jr. steps into a race car at Daytona International Speedway, he admits he feels the pressure being viewed as a favorite no matter where he sits in points and what his future might entail.
With 10 regular-season races left in his final full-time campaign of NASCAR Cup racing, Earnhardt winning the pole Friday for the Coke Zero 400 was a statement. Likely needing a win to make the playoffs, he views Saturday night’s race as a chance to transform a frustrating final season into a fulfilling one.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Earnhardt, who hadn’t won a pole since September 2013 at Dover. “I try to look at it as a good opportunity to go out there and get a win. I know what I need to do on the racetrack, and I’ll try to go out there and do that and do the best I can and drive the race that I need to drive.
“Hopefully, that has me in position late in the race. … Hopefully, we can get the job done. There’s a lot of things to do still before we see the checkered flag.”
Earnhardt turned a lap of 190.973 mph in qualifying Friday, besting Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott (190.795). The duo shared the front row for the Daytona 500 in February, but with Elliott winning the pole.
Earnhardt, who has 17 career wins across various series and events at Daytona, sits 22nd in the standings and 134 points out of the current playoff cutoff. A win virtually automatically qualifies a driver for the playoffs.
“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” Earnhardt said. “This is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other racetracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically, but what I see in my team gives me confidence.”
What Hendrick Motorsports has seen in Earnhardt is a very determined driver this weekend.
“I wouldn’t say [he has] a chip on his shoulder, but I do think he has been very, very determined this weekend on making sure his car is driving exactly like he wants it,” Elliott said.
“He doesn’t want it good. He doesn’t want it great. He wants it perfect. He’s made that very apparent in our post-practice meetings. He’s very determined to run well here.”
Earnhardt said he didn’t feel more determined. He just was concerned about what he felt in the few laps of practice in the draft and talked about it in the post-practice debrief.
“I just know that I need the car a certain way and need the car to do certain things,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had one debrief, and I did notice in a couple of situations in practice some things about the balance of my car I didn’t like, so we addressed that, started working on that.”
By winning the pole, Earnhardt automatically qualified for the 2018 preseason Clash at Daytona. Earnhardt indicated he wants to run it.
“I’ll talk to the boss and see what he’s got in the shed,” Earnhardt said.