Repeat Daytona win evades Earnhardt

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jay Guarneri was busy preparing Danica Patrick's car for Sunday's Daytona 500, but it didn't take much for his mind to wander back 10 years to the scene on the infield grass a few hundred yards away.

He recalled vividly how he and other members of Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team were standing behind the pit road wall waiting on the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet to complete its 2.5-mile victory lap at Daytona International Speedway.

He remembered yelling "Let's go out there and get him!'' as the car came to a stop at the start-finish line. He got almost misty-eyed replaying the moment Earnhardt leaped into his arms seconds after climbing out of the car and pumping his fist.

He has a big picture of that moment hanging on the wall in front of his desk at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he now is the interior mechanic for Patrick's No. 10 team.

"That was raw emotion,'' said Guarneri, a mechanic and tire changer for Earnhardt when he won the 500 in 2004. "That's the way it should be. We used to party pretty hard back in the day in Victory Lane with ... beer everywhere. People were like, 'Man, why do you guys act like this?'

"You never know when you'll get back there, so we were going to enjoy the five minutes of fame.''

Ten years later, Earnhardt hasn't been back there in the 500. He's been close, finishing second last season and in three of the past four. But second doesn't spark the emotion that in 2004 came three years after his father was killed on the last lap of the Great American Race.

Maybe this will be the year.

Most of the talk has been about the strength of the Joe Gibbs Racing cars that won the Sprint Unlimited with Denny Hamlin and both of Thursday night's qualifying races with Matt Kenseth and Hamlin.

The talk has been about the strength of the Richard Childress cars, which won the pole with rookie Austin Dillon in the famed No. 3 that hasn't been on the track in NASCAR's premier series since Dale Earnhardt's death.

Earnhardt Jr. has flown under the radar for the most part even though he repeatedly has reminded us his Hendrick Motorsports cars are good. He led a handful of laps in the final segment of the Unlimited before crashing, thanks to a miscommunication with drafting partner Marcos Ambrose.

He was leading with 23 laps to go in the first qualifying race when he came to pit road too fast and flattened the tires trying to avoid a penalty. He finished fifth.

He had the seventh-fastest time in Sunday's qualifying.

As fast as he's been, few are talking about Earnhardt as a contender -- and maybe for good reason. Once considered the king of restrictor-plate racing, he hasn't won a Sprint Cup event at Daytona or Talladega since 2004.

But to overlook Earnhardt would be a mistake. He still understands the draft as well as or better than anybody, and that will be key with a new setup that has made side drafting more treacherous than ever. There's also a quiet confidence about him that is eerily like it was in 2004.

"It was one of those weeks you knew we were going to win it,'' Guarneri recalled of the 500 that year.

That Earnhardt hasn't won a second 500 really shouldn't be a surprise. It took his father, a seven-time Cup champion, 20 years to win his first and only one in 1998. It took three-time Cup champion Darrell Waltrip 17 tries to win one.

Three-time champion Tony Stewart never has won one.

"It's an easy race to win, and it's a hard race to win,'' Guarneri said. "You have to have everything fall right.''

He's right. It's not easy, although Earnhardt made plate wins look easy from 2001 to 2004 when he won the 500 and five Talladega Cup races.

"Those cars were pretty amazing that I was driving back then,'' said Earnhardt, who was driving then for his father's team at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "I will be honest. Those cars should have won. I can't take as much credit as I would like for how good those cars were back then, and how we had ourselves separated from the competition.''

Today's cars are much closer. It's hard to get an edge, even when you're driving for the sport's top organizations as Earnhardt is.

"I definitely appreciate the challenge we have today,'' Earnhardt said. "If it were the same playing field, I would be asking myself a lot of questions. But it has changed so much since then. At least that is my story."

Earnhardt doesn't get frustrated by his narrow losses in the 500. He doesn't have time to. He's too busy trying to win this one.

But he hasn't forgotten the feeling he had in 2004 after beating Stewart by 0.273 seconds.

"A lot of satisfaction, a lot of relief and a lot of pride,'' he said. "Certainly, definitely walked around with my chest out for a while. And you still carry that with you after all these years. That will last forever. You never forget about it.''

Those that were on Earnhardt's crew that day won't forget, either. They are spread throughout the garage with DEI disbanded. Several of them are on Patrick's team, from Guarneri to car chief Kevin Pennell, the jackman on the 8 in '04.

"That was an emotional deal right there,'' Guarneri said. "When Sunday starts up, I'll look out there and hope [Patrick] can win and we can run across and pick her up and I'm sure it will be pretty wild. You have to celebrate like that, because you never know when you'll get back there again.''

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