Junior was the teacher at Daytona

Updated: February 20, 2004, 7:21 PM ET
By Mike Massaro | ESPN

Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
OK, it's time to review. What did we learn from Sunday's Daytona 500?

To start with, it appears that Dale Earnhardt Jr. was serious about his championship guarantee. Following his victory last season in Phoenix he said if his team stayed together -- which aside from spotter and team president Ty Norris, they have -- they would win the 2004 championship. Of course at the time he didn't know anything about the new point system. Nonetheless, the win Sunday got the No. 8 Budweiser team headed in the right direction.

It's clear that the gap between Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and everyone else at restrictor plate tracks is still very wide. Junior and Michael Waltrip have now combined to win 10 of the last 13 plate races. The numbers defy logic and the moves on the track defy science. At times the 8 car alone appeared to have the strength of a three-car draft. He could pull out of line by himself and pass at will.

Asked what the secret was, Earnhardt Jr. quipped, "you're looking at it, bud." Then he laughed and said, "just kidding." Seriously though, was he?

Saying 'Little E' is good at restrictor plate racing is like saying Tiger Woods is good at golf or Michael Jordan is good at basketball. It's a huge understatement. Six of Earnhardt Jr.'s 10 career wins have come at either Daytona or Talladega. That's 60 percent. His dad -- the undisputed 'King of restrictor plate racing' -- can't even claim that.

The Prince has indeed inherited the throne.

After winning the Daytona 500 in only his fifth attempt Earnhardt Jr. celebrated with his team into the early hours of Monday morning. He got only three hours rest before returning to the racetrack where he completed a perfect week by winning the Hershey's Kisses 300 Busch race. That reinforces the belief that Junior truly can win restrictor plate races in his sleep.

This weekend will be a test for young Dale. Rockingham has not been kind to the 29-year-old recently. Last year's spring race was a disaster for Earnhardt Jr. He spun multiple times and finished three laps down in 33rd. He was better in the fall, but his 13th-place finish still left room for improvement.

There were other lessons to be taken from this year's 'Great American Race.' For instance, if you thought tires were an issue Sunday, you haven't seen anything yet.

The new generation tire has been designed to give up grip more rapidly. Despite driver's interpretations, Goodyear doesn't like to call them "softer." However, this year's Eagle is making last year's version look like vulcanized rubber -- you know, the stuff hockey pucks are made of.

Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was at the head of the class at Daytona last weekend.

In Daytona, if drivers weren't smooth and the setup was a tick off, the right front tire would be worn to the cords before the end of a fuel run. At Rockingham -- one of the most abrasive tracks on the NEXTEL Cup circuit -- the situation will be much worse. Look for veterans to excel, rookies to struggle and two-tire changes to be extinct.

Vince Lombardi often said, "winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Forever it seems this has been Tony Stewart's mantra as well. So, when he finished second in Daytona and climbed from the Home Depot Chevy grinning from ear to ear many were surprised. Don't be. This is the new, somewhat more mature, Stewart. A driver who now understands that he can't win them all. And with that self-imposed burden off his shoulders he will be tough to beat in 2004.

We also learned that the Yates-Roush engine alliance has not achieved "dream team" status yet. Despite making significant horsepower gains, it appears there are reliability concerns. Roush teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Burton encountered engine failures early in the race. This came on the heels of the prerace engine change by fellow Roush driver Greg Biffle, which dropped him from the pole to the back of the field.

Certainly there will be growing pains, and dropping out of races early is a difficult way to learn. However, once the Yates-Roush hybrid hits on all cylinders -- literally -- it will be a force to reckoned with.

My final observation, slash, rant has to do with the apparent need for separation of church and sport. When Joe Gibbs Racing rolled out, "The Passion of the Christ/Interstate Batteries Chevrolet," controversy swirled. People wanted to know, what kind of message is Bobby Labonte trying to send?

Here's my take: The only message B-Lab was trying to send was that he wanted to win the race and in order to do that you need a well-financed operation. For Labonte, the movie was merely a sponsor. And he had as much to do with acquiring that sponsor as Pedro Martinez had to do with the placing gigantic Coca-Cola bottles above Fenway Park's Green Monster.

This was a decision made in the front office of JGR. Bottom line, it was a movie promotion not a religious proclamation. Let's not read into this anymore than we read into Mark Martin's sponsor, Viagra.

Also bear in mind NASCAR approves all sponsors before they arrive at the track. They are very conscious of their image and are not in the business of alienating potential fans. Sure, it's an organization founded in the Bible belt but every time I hear the prerace invocation at Daytona it ends the same way, covering a range of religious bases with the words Shalom and Amen.

Mike Massaro covers NASCAR for ESPN and ESPN.com.

Mike Massaro, host of ESPN2's daily NASCAR news and information program NASCAR Now, and a pit reporter for NASCAR race telecasts, has been with ESPN since 2001. An award-winning reporter for NASCAR and other sports for SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, ESPNEWS, ESPN Radio and other multi-platform programming, Massaro previously served as a reporter for ESPN's motorsports news program RPM2Night.

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