- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't know where he was as he came down the frontstretch, three-wide between two cars, for what would be the final lap of the Daytona 500. Everything was a blur, particularly having been 22nd only a handful of laps earlier.
"Then I looked up and there was just one car in front of me," Earnhardt said.
So did what remained of the packed house at Daytona International Speedway after two red-flag stops for a total of two hours and 25 minutes to repair a hole between Turns 1 and 2.
A loud roar filled the cool night air. You could feel something special was happening as NASCAR's most popular driver attempted to pull off a miracle finish.
It didn't happen. Earnhardt finished second to Jamie McMurray.
But the crowd didn't go home disappointed. They saw what could be, what many hope will be, the re-emergence of Earnhardt from NASCAR's most popular driver into a winning driver.
The sport got what it wanted and needed as well, understanding when a competitor of Earnhardt's popularity does well it's good for television ratings and ticket sales.
And it was good to see Earnhardt smile.
He hasn't smiled this much in front of the media -- albeit a few strange moments with Disney character "Handy Manny" earlier in the week -- in a long time.
"I had a helluva time," Earnhardt said. "When you've got a good car that will make some moves and don't wreck ... I've wrecked out of the last couple of 500s. I figured what have I got to do to finish one of these things and finish it good?
"I might have been a little too careful [in the past], you know. Tonight, if there was a hole in the middle I went there. Wherever it was."
After the year Earnhardt was coming off of, going winless and finishing a career-worst 25th in points, this was almost as good as a win.
It certainly was better than he expected earlier in the day, when during the first red flag, he was asked by TV analyst Darrell Waltrip if he could catch the rest of the field.
"Are you serious?" Earnhardt said in a high-pitched voice.
Earnhardt knows he needed a lot of luck to be in this situation. He knows had NASCAR not added earlier in the week the opportunity for two additional green-white-checkered finishes he would have finished 10th and there wouldn't be the buzz he created.
He knows had he not pitted for tires when others didn't late he wouldn't have had the grip to slice through the cars like a hot knife through butter.
"I was just going where they weren't," said Earnhardt, who won this event in 2004. "I really don't enjoy being that aggressive. If there was enough room for a radiator to fit you just held the gas down and prayed for the best.
"It's frustrating to come that close. But hell, we were running 22nd at the first green-white-checkered. I feel pretty good. I'm happy for my team."
The team is what this is most about. They needed a confidence boost almost as much as Earnhardt did, particularly after an offseason in which team owner Rick Hendrick dedicated himself to turning the No. 88 team around, particularly after crew chief Lance McGrew reorganized the shop to work more as one with Mark Martin's team.
"It validates the changes they made and the hard work they made over the offseason to get better," Earnhardt said. "I just hope we can keep it up. This was a bit of a handling race. We didn't have too bad of a race car."
For most of the afternoon he didn't have a great-handling car despite qualifying second. He complained constantly about being too loose and not having enough grip.
It wasn't until the sun went down, which wouldn't have happened had it not been for the track coming apart, did his car come around.
"We had all kinds of mess going on there," Earnhardt said. "When it got cool everybody's car got gripped up."
A year ago, Earnhardt may not have been so patient. He may have gotten so frustrated with the handling or the communication with the crew chief that he would have given up, or at least mentally lost his focus.
The Earnhardt we saw on Sunday was a lot more relaxed and confident. He was so loose that he and his crew played a game of baseball trivia during the first red-flag stop.
And Earnhardt, not much of a baseball fan, got the first couple of questions right.
But if you want an idea of how loose Earnhardt was you had to hear him talk about the hole.
"They found a hole in the track," Earnhardt radioed with a touch of sarcasm. "About a 2½-mile hole. A s--- hole."
He said he was joking during the second red flag, but he really wasn't. Earnhardt believes more than any driver in the garage that these hallowed grounds need repaving.
It's frustrating to come that close. But, hell, we were running 22nd at the first green-white-checkered. I feel pretty good. I'm happy for my team.
”-- Dale Earnhardt Jr.
"I've been wanting them to repave it for years," Earnhardt said. "If they repaved it years ago when I first asked them to it would be just right now. Wouldn't it? It would be weathered and we'd be having the race of our lives."
Earnhardt almost had the race of his life. He evoked memories of his father charging from 18th to first over the final five laps at Talladega Superspeedway.
He certainly had McMurray, who won in his debut in the No. 1 at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, worried.
"I thought, 'Oh, no!'" McMurray said as he saw the 88 in his rearview mirror. "He had a good car, and Earnhardt at Daytona is just, I mean they win all the time, it seems like."
Not really. Earnhardt has won here only twice: in July 2001, the race after his father's death, and the 500 in 2004. In four of his past six starts at Daytona, he finished 27th or worse.
Daytona for Earnhardt is, as Michael Waltrip said earlier in the week, a place where he's had the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Sunday almost became one of the highest highs.
It certainly was better than his Saturday Nationwide race, when he wound up upside down while leading and his star pupil, Danica Patrick, left in a crumpled mess. Did this make up for that?
"No, no," said Earnhardt, who has been overshadowed by Patrick most of the week. "Nothing will dull that unless someone has a $600,000 check they want to give me."
He laughed. Everyone did.
What's encouraging is Earnhardt wasn't satisfied. He showed a fire in his belly that seemingly has been missing, one that he will need if he is to raise his game to the level of Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin.
"You know, when you're running 22nd, you're mad because you just want to get a top-10," Earnhardt said. "When you get a top-10 you're pissed off because you can't get in the top 5. Then when you're running second it gets you mad because you didn't get a win.
"That's how NASCAR drivers are, I hope."
That's what many NASCAR fans and reporters questioned whether Earnhardt was the past few seasons. This could be a sign that good things are ahead.
Earnhardt hopes so, but refuses to get caught up in the euphoria of one great finish. That may be a good sign as well, that he understands one race doesn't make a season.
"It's just one race," Earnhardt said. "It's not your typical style of track that we run on all year. If we can go to Fontana and Vegas, be competitive at any point, it would be a little more validation.
"This is not a true gauge on what the changes are going to do to our team. The next couple of races will definitely give us a better understanding of where we are."
For now, Earnhardt is in a better place than he'd been in a while.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
13dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information