Dale Earnhardt Jr. is back, and he sure let the field know it Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.
Starting from pole in the Can-Am Duel No. 2, Earnhardt raced like he never left, leading 53 of 60 laps in his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Despite the resurgence of the pied piper, it didn’t cap off in Victory Lane, as Earnhardt was outsmarted by a swiftly winning pass by Denny Hamlin coming to the white flag.
“He had an awesome run,” Earnhardt said. “I could’ve gone to the top, he would’ve gone to the bottom and cleared me. There was no way to defend that. He’s a smart enough of a plate racer that I respect what he’s doing out there. I knew we were sitting ducks.”
Just hours removed from calling the Advance Auto Parts Clash on Sunday, Earnhardt qualified on the front row for Sunday’s Daytona 500 alongside teammate and pole-sitter Chase Elliott. Though HMS swept the top spots, Thursday’s Duels showed their strength in drafting, too.
“We didn’t wreck, didn’t tear our car up,” he said. “So, if we can get through these next practices, we’ll put this thing on the starting grid for the 500.”
Putting his head to the test for the first time since his concussion diagnosis seven months ago, Earnhardt says it was just what he hoped.
“I felt great,” he said. “I feel like I’m a good plate racer, but there are some guys out there that are sure picking it up. Hamlin, [Joey] Logano, they sure make it hard to win these things. I felt like I was processing things the way I needed to and I knew where everyone was at all times. Even the guys you can’t see. You have to have that sense. I never felt I was behind on processing. My brain is working just the way I want it to.”
With a healthy dose of perspective, Earnhardt now has that precious momentum leading into the Great American Race.
“We have to be aware of how far we came to get back here,” he concluded. “To lead all them laps and be able to make smart moves, it felt great.”