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And Another Thing

Associated Press
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, celebrates in Victory Lane with teammate Jeff Gordon, right, after winning the NASCAR Daytona 500 Sprint Cup series auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday.

Daytona interruptus

Well, that wasn't weird at all.

The Great American Intermission finally came off down there in Daytona yesterday, preceded by the Great American Hors D'oeuvres and followed by the Daytona 355. Finally, 10 hours after it started, it all ended a bit before 11:30 p.m. with Dale Earnhardt Jr. holding off a pack of folks who know how to get around Daytona International Speedway.

It was a worthy end to a day fractured by an epic 6-hour, 22-minute rain delay that stretched the boundaries of the word "delay." When you can fly completely across the country and eat a leisurely meal afterward in the time it took to start the race and then restart it, it's not really a delay. It's an offseason.

And so we got 38 completely unattached laps that had no real bearing on anything, because when everyone finally got back out there a little after 8:30 p.m. the entire nature of the event had changed. It became a night race then, with conditions unique to night races -- i.e., a much faster race track.

And Junior was the fastest of all, which should serve warning to everyone else. His alliance with crew chief Steve Letarte has been quietly bearing fruit for the last couple of seasons, as Letarte has built Earnhardt consistently fast cars that have in turn put back together Junior's confidence, shattered by years of what seemed pointless struggling.

Last season that resulted in five second-place finishes, one of which was Daytona. Smart money says Earnhardt this one won't be the last second place he turns into a win this year.

A lot of people have said this a lot of times before, but this could be the year Junior seriously contends for the Sprint Cup title. He was a solid fifth in the points last year, winding up just 56 adrift of champion Jimmie Johnson. That's not a lot to make up.

Ben Smith's blog.