Junior one victory shy of Daytona's version of Triple Crown

2/17/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Any prognosticators out there who aren't picking Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the 50th running of the Daytona 500 haven't been paying attention.

Yeah, go ahead. I know it's coming. Call me an Earnhardt homer. I can take it.

I also have two eyes. And what I've seen over the past few days is complete domination by Earnhardt in his shiny new No. 88 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports.

Sure he's the easy pick, but I'm also going out on a limb here. I'm going against history. No driver ever has swept Daytona with a Speedweeks version of the Triple Crown, winning the Bud Shootout, the Gatorade Duel and the 500.

That's zero in 29 tries, not good odds for Earnhardt. But something special is happening here this week.

Earnhardt is born again as a racer since freeing himself from his perceived shackles at Dale Earnhardt Inc. His confidence is soaring and the Junior tsunami is zooming over everything in its path.

Earnhardt Jr. never will catch his daddy for the top spot in NASCAR history. Not even close. But the one area where Junior does come close to his old man is the highly specialized skill of restrictor-plate racing.

The magic gene that helped Dale Sr. see the air in the draft at Daytona and Talladega was passed down to Dale Jr.

He may be Clark Kent at some racetracks, but Earnhardt Jr. is Superman at the restrictor-plate superspeedways. Give him a competitive car and Junior will get to the front at Daytona and Talladega.

No one in the sport today is better. Knowing how to race with a choked-down engine is an art form. It requires timing, daring, planning and figuring out which drivers can help push you forward.

Some of this stuff can't be taught. It's instinct. You either have it or you don't, and Junior has it.

But as Earnhardt Sr. knew all too well, talent and victory often fail to match up in the Daytona 500. So many things can go wrong.

Engines blow, tires give out. Both are looming concerns on Sunday. Hendrick replaced all its engines because of a coating issue on the lifters. Toyota teams have endured the same problem.

All the teams believe they have the motor woes under control, but 500 miles is a long race.

Tire failures also have haunted many teams this week. The new car design places additional weight on the right side and increases the load on the tires in the high-banked turns.

The teams are trying to figure out how much camber (tire tilt) is safe to use without gambling on a blowout.

"Everybody is pretty concerned about it," driver Brian Vickers said. "We can't even make it a full fuel run. It's a big factor."

Tires are one of many X factors that explain why the best driver in the best car doesn't always win the 500. Even Derrike Cope and Ward Burton won this race.

Barring a surprising upset, Earnhardt's biggest competition could come from his teammates: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Johnson won it in 2006 and Gordon won it for the third time in 2005.

And don't count out the Joe Gibbs Racing trio. Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch all are capable of bringing Toyota a historic victory on Sunday.

But if you're asking who should win, clearly it's Earnhardt Jr. He has done some things on the track this week that conventional logic says can't be done.

En route to his qualifying race victory Thursday, Earnhardt moved out of line to swing low in Turn 4. No one went with him. Why follow the guy you can't beat?

A car by itself usually is slower than a train of cars in the draft, but Earnhardt pulled to the front all alone. If not for the roar of the pack of cars going by, you could have heard guys on pit road saying "Wow!"

Part of the credit belongs to the new car. This is the first race at Daytona for the Car of Tomorrow, a moniker that no longer applies.

The boxier design has made for some exciting racing during Speedweeks. There were 71 green-flag passes for the lead in the two Duel races Thursday, a whopping 43 more than a year ago.

Earnhardt started near the back in his Duel because of an engine change. By Lap 18, he was in the lead, slicing his way through traffic like George Jetson in rush hour.

Who needs asphalt when you're the ruler of the air, an Earnhardt family trademark at this track.

Earnhardt Jr. is the master of Daytona for the moment. All the hopes and dreams he had for his new team's debut are coming true. But he still has one big brushstroke left to make the masterpiece complete.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.