Opinion: Coke Zero 400 NASCAR race setting up to be Dale Jr.'s last stand
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., one lap could change the course of an entire dreadful season.
The soon to be retired 42-year-old isn’t quite willing to throw in the towel when it comes to his chances to make the playoffs without winning at Daytona, but knows the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday night represents his best shot.
The numbers aren’t pretty for Earnhardt in his final season as a full-time Cup Series driver. With just 10 races remaining in the regular season, he’s 22nd in the championship standings, and 134 points out of a provisional playoff spot.
Without a doubt, he knows he must win to make the Round of 16, and Daytona is the most likely venue to grant him safe passage into the big dance. So naturally, the stage was set for such a magical moment on Friday night when he captured the pole.
Of course, starting up front in a restrictor plate race doesn’t guarantee much of anything, but it did provide hope for a fan base desperate for anything to cling onto.
Now it’s up to the driver to deliver.
“I know what I need to do on the track,” Earnhardt said. “And I will try and go out there and do it, drive the race I need to drive and hopefully that has me in position by the end of the race. There are so many talented cars and talented drivers but hopefully we can get the job done.”
Despite the weight of expectations on his shoulder, Earnhardt says he isn’t feeling any additional pressure to perform.
So is that defiant confidence or indifferent resignation?
It’s hard to tell with Earnhardt, who otherwise claims to still have the same drive that catapulted him to 26 career Cup victories over the past 20 years. And he’s made no secret that he covets at least one shot to race for the championship that has long eluded him.
But what if he doesn’t win?
There’s just not a lot of evidence to suggest that Earnhardt can will himself to one last hurrah at a non-restrictor plate track.
“I don’t have a lot to go against that argument,” Earnhardt said. “I don’t have a lot of statistics to show you. I don’t think I’ve done a lot on the race track to change their opinion if they think that.
“With my team, I’m confident in them that we could show up anywhere and surprise everyone. If we don’t come out of here and win this race, the urgency will pick up as it would with every week that goes by. I have confidence in our ability to get a win.
“We can go to Pocono and win. We can go to Michigan and get a win. I don’t see why we can’t go to either track and get a win. We are running out of time and I’m aware of that. This is probably our best shot to win but we can win at other race tracks. We have that ability to do that.”
Or he can just lead Lap 160 of the Coke Zero 400 and change the narrative of everything that preceded it.