Dale Earnhardt, Jr., falls short of victory lane, but finishes without issue in Daytona racing return

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Two Hendrick Motorsports drivers will lead the field to the green flag to start the 59th Annual Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 26. However, only one of them will do so knowing they achieved victory in their Can-Am Duel.

And no, it isn’t Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

Starting on the pole, Earnhardt dominated the 60-lap event, pacing the field at Daytona International Speedway for nearly the entirety of the race’s duration. A group of drivers including Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer and Jimmie Johnson made their way to the 42-year-old’s bumper, but each challenge for the top spot fell short.

Given that, and the fact that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott had already shown the speed of the organization’s fleet in a Duel 1 victory, fans and critics could be forgiven for perceiving Earnhardt’s run to the checkered flag as an inevitability with the laps winding down.

However, just when it seemed that Earnhardt was cruising to the checkered flag, a new challenger arrived: a familiar face, and a driver that’s been as successful as any on restrictor plate tracks over recent weeks.

Denny Hamlin.

For 58 laps, Earnhardt was borderline untouchable. One brilliant move from Hamlin and two laps later, NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver was left scrambling to the line in sixth.

On victory lane minutes later, the Kannapolis, North Carolina native was left scratching his head.

“I don’t know what I could have done differently to defend that,” Earnhardt said. “Once I heard the No. 3 (Austin Dillon) was clear on the outside, I knew they was going to have a big run. Denny (Hamlin, race winner) is so smart and he knows what he’s doing out there. He’s one of the better plate racers out there. Any whichway I would have went, he was going to go the other way and probably get by me. I was hoping Austin might push us a little bit since he drives a Chevy; but I don’t know if I would have done it any different than he did, either.”

The most important news for Earnhardt and his legion of fans is that he made it to the end of the race without issue.

Yes, that was expected, and Earnhardt already had two tests under his belt – the private test used for medical clearance at Darlington Raceway, and the organizational test at Phoenix International Raceway. But those experiences pale in comparison to running in a pack full of Cup series stars.

As far as mental tests go, Daytona is about as taxing a venue as can be found on the NASCAR circuit. That Earnhardt made it to the checkered flag unfazed is a strong indicator that the months spent making sure he was fully recovered from last June’s concussion were justified.

Still, for those that hoped for Daytona glory in Earnhardt’s return, Hamlin’s successful pass may be a strong snap back to reality.

And if the move comes again in the 500?

Earnhardt isn’t sure there’s a way to stop it.

“If it was the Daytona 500, same thing,” Earnhardt said. “There ain’t much you can do about that. It’s not really defendable. So, it’s a good job by Denny and those guys putting it all together at the end.”

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