If you closed your eyes for just a minute at the end of the Daytona 500, the green-and-white No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet appeared to drive like the old black No. 3 Sunday night at Daytona International Speedway.
In a wild and at times downright bizarre Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was sitting way back in 22nd place when NASCAR made what turned out to be the first of two attempts at a green-white-checkered finish. And when the white flag came out on the second and final attempt, Earnhardt Jr. was still mired in 10th place.
But when the checkered flag fell, Earnhardt was all the way up to second, his best finish since Talladega in April 2009. It was the kind of drive his late father made when he won his last race at Talladega in 2000, where he charged from 17th to victory in the final four laps.
This time at the Daytona 500, the second-place run was a stunning and unexpected finish for Earnhardt, who had qualified second but frankly hadn't been a major factor in the race all afternoon. And afterwards, Earnhardt was somewhat at a loss to explain how it all went down at the end.
Asked to recall the frantic last lap, Earnhardt said, “I don't really remember much about it. It was all a blur. I was just going wherever they weren't. I really don't enjoy being that aggressive. But if there was enough room for the radiator to fit, you just kind of held the gas down and prayed for the best.”
And on this night, Earnhardt's best was a solid second-place behind surprise winner Jamie McMurray. No, it wasn't a victory, but it was a strong run, one that was a good first step at putting Earnhardt's nightmare 2009 season behind him.
Of course, Earnhardt being a racer, he had mixed emotions about the outcome — happy that he was second, frustrated that he didn't win.
“I feel good about the finish,” said Earnhardt. “It's just frustrating coming that close. Hell, I don't have anything to be — you know, when you're running 22nd, you're mad because you just want to get a top 10. When you get a top 10, you're pissed off because you can't get in the top five. Then when you're running second it gets you mad because you didn't get a win. That's how race-car drivers are, I hope.”
Still, all things considered, Earnhardt was more than happy with a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500.
“I had a hell of a time tonight,” Earnhardt said. “When you got a good car, one that will make some moves and don't wreck. I wrecked out of the last couple 500s. I figured, 'What do I have to do to finish one of these things and finish it good?' I might have been a little too careful, you know. Tonight I just let it all hang out. If there was a hole in the middle, I went there. Wherever it was. … But a lot of luck, too. I'm not complaining up here about running second. I'm pretty happy about it.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief for SPEEDtv.com, the former Executive Editor of NASCAR Scene and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. He is the author of "Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of SPEED," and has appeared on television and radio shows to discuss NASCAR racing. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association. Jensen is the 1997 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year and has won numerous national and state awards for news reporting, columns and feature writing. The Answer Man is back at SPEEDtv.com. Tom Jensen answers your questions during every race week and looks forward to hearing from you - please e-mail it to