He nimbly dodged a few cars that were being pushed through pit road at Daytona International Speedway, then darted past a handful of red-clad autograph hounds. For the first time in months Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a bounce in his step--and a smile on his face--as he left the track in the small hours of Sunday morning. He had just finished third at the rain-delayed Pepsi 400, and now as he walked quickly through the dark garage, he was eyeing future checkered flags. "This is an omen," said Earnhardt of his best performance since an identical finish at the season-opening Daytona 500. "We need more, but now we know we can do it. We can get to the Chase [for the Nextel Cup]. We can."
The Pepsi 400, which was won by Tony Stewart, was a crucial event for Earnhardt, who had fallen to 18th in the points standings entering the race and had come in 33rd or lower three times in his previous six starts. But everyone at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) viewed the Pepsi 400 as a timely tonic. Little E has 10 career wins in 27 starts on the 2.5-mile superspeedway and is well established as one of NASCAR's premier restrictor-plate racers.
"I wouldn't say we'd be out of it if we didn't run well here, but it sure wouldn't help," said Richie Gilmore, the director of motor sports at DEI, two hours before the engines revved on Saturday. "Momentum is key in our sport, and we really need some."
After the green flag dropped, Earnhardt, who qualified 39th, patiently worked his way through the field. On Lap 35 he nearly got caught up in Daytona's famed Big One, the crash involving multiple cars--nine, in this case--that's as predictable as the postrace traffic nightmare on nearby I-4. But Earnhardt swerved his Budweiser Chevy between Matt Kenseth's Dewalt Ford and Jamie McMurray's Havoline Dodge to avoid the carnage. Then, displaying the skillful drafting that's essential at restrictor-plate tracks such as Daytona, Earnhardt piloted the Bud car into third place with five laps remaining. Alas, he didn't have the horsepower to catch Stewart, who led more laps (151 of 160) than any other driver in the race's history and was never passed under the green flag.
"This was a night that won't happen [again] for a very, very long time," said Stewart, who has won the last two Cup races and is third in the standings. "To have a car so good that [it could hold] off every challenge that came to us is something hard to do."
Though Earnhardt couldn't overtake Stewart or runner-up McMurray, it was still an important points day for Junior, who climbed to 16th in points and has nine starts to make up an easily surmountable 106-point deficit. (Only the top 10 drivers will qualify for the 10-race Chase.) Though Little E has struggled recently on the 1.5-mile tracks that are heavily featured in the circuit's summer schedule, the optimism is back at DEI. So too is the determination; Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Hmiel, who replaced Pete Rondeau in late May, has worked feverishly to improve Junior's cars. "We've changed the bodies and the setup of the suspension, and we've consulted a lot with our engineers," says Hmiel. "I think we've found some more speed."
The race is on.