DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was still beaming one day after the Budweiser Shootout.
His demeanor on Sunday was quite different than after qualifying at Talladega Superspeedway in October - the previous time NASCAR ran at a restrictor plate track - and it had nothing to do with posting the third-fastest lap of 194.028 mph in time trials for the Daytona 500.
Earnhardt's change of heart is simple. After two years of tandem racing at Daytona and Talladega, tracks where he's scored seven of his 18 career wins, Earnhardt was back in control of his car during the Shootout. No longer did he have to rely on whether his teammate was ready to make a move from the back of the pack or push him to make a pass. Earnhardt could wheel his car on his own.
And Sunday night, Earnhardt appeared to be back in old form - before he was caught up in a wreck and finished 20th. Still, the potential for racing was there.
"I was feeling really good and really happy with the way things were going," Earnhardt said after the race. "I felt like I was doing a good job. I felt like I had control of my race and had potential to win the race if I made all the right moves. That is all I can ask for."
With NASCAR's new rules package, cars are less stable aerodynamically and drivers no longer can push draft each other for extended periods of time since the size of the radiators were cut in half. While the Shootout was hairy at times, the drivers appeared more confident running their own races - even when they were on the verge of wrecking. And certainly, the new rules package benefited the wheelmen of the sport. Like most race fans, Junior was impressed by the level of racing and particularly the skill exhibited by Shootout winner Kyle Busch.
"It was amazing some of the saves he did," Earnhardt said of Busch. "He should go back there (in the garage) and give his track bar a high-five because the track bar mount saved his tail on a few of those deals. It was pretty awesome what he did, and to come back after all the things he went through to win the race was pretty spectacular.
"It was a great race because of the way Kyle won it and because of the style of racing we had in there. It was a lot of fun. It was fun to be able to get offensive and go up there and try to take the lead. I think the fans really enjoyed all the lead changes we had (26 in 82 laps) and everybody out there being able to work on their own deal and not having to have a partner to make something happen."
Earnhardt's anticipation of the upcoming Daytona 500 is understandable. He was bitten several times last year in tandem-style restrictor plate racing. After winning the pole for the 500 and leading nine laps, he wrecked with six laps remaining and finished 24th. At Talladega in April, he pushed teammate Jimmie Johnson to the win - because his car was better in the pushing position than it was in the lead. Earnhardt faced a similar fate at Daytona in July, when he led one lap and finished 19th after getting involved in a late-race wreck.
But perhaps the greatest disappointment of all was the fall race at Talladega, where he was never a factor. Earnhardt rode around at the back of the pack with Johnson throughout the race and waited too long to move forward. The strategy bit both drivers and Earnhardt finished 25th.
When Junior was asked whether he would help his JR Motorsports Nationwide Series driver Danica Patrick when she makes her Sprint Cup debut in the Daytona 500 next week, he just laughed. With his newfound freedom in restrictor plate races, don't be surprised if Junior doesn't turn a tad bit selfish.
"I'll help her just like I help anyone else - whatever helps me," Earnhardt said with a maniacal laugh. "Whatever helps me. If she needs help and it helps me, I'll help her. I want to be up front, and I want to lead every lap."
And after having his hands tied for the past few years, it will be all about Junior next Sunday.