Earnhardt Jr. takes centre stage at Daytona 500
NASCAR's most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. is aiming to mark his debut for Hendrick Motorsport on Sunday with victory in the 50th edition of the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt has never won the "The Great American Race" but, having left DEI, the team founded by his late father, at the end of last season he is confident that he can break his duck with the sport's dominant team.
Earnhardt won two exhibition races as part of the build-up to Sunday's main event and his number 88 Chevy has looked fast and competitive.
"I'm real proud and happy to have the talent that I've got on my team. The depth that I've got in the whole organization over at Hendrick is a pleasure," Earnhardt said.
"Sure has to make a driver's job a lot easier. I'm just looking forward to enjoying that and being involved in that all season. We'll see what happens," he added.
Earnhardt has won at Daytona in a number of events but never in the mammoth 500-mile race and he acknowledges there is a huge difference. His father, one of the sport's greats, needed 20 attempts to win NASCAR's most illustrious event.
"You can think about a 70-lap race and go, Hey, man, this is what we need to do. This is the strategy, pit stop, where we're going to stop. This is how quickly you need to be in front. You can do things to have a better shot at winning," Earnhardt said.
"But the 500, you just got to run all day long. You're going to get passed. You're going to pass people. And you just got to be there at the end. It's just very hard to do. So many variables," he said.
Most eyes will be on Earnhardt but Hendrick have several chances of claiming top spot, including defending NASCAR champion Jimmy Johnson who won the Daytona 500 in 2006.
Johnson, seeking his third consecutive NASCAR championship title, will start on pole position at Daytona and Hendrick's most experienced driver Jeff Gordon will also fancy his chances.
The controversial Tony Stewart, who has already clashed with rival and team mate Kurt Busch in preparation, is another contender, racing for the team of former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs who also have hopes for rising talent Denny Hamlin.
Scottish driver Dario Franchitti, who has moved over to NASCAR from Indy racing, will make his debut for Chip Ganassi Racing but Canadian former Formula One racer Jacques Villeneuve failed to qualify for Sunday's race.