DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is at Daytona International Speedway for Saturday night's Coke Zero 400.
It is the second trip of the year to Daytona, and the Coke Zero 400 is the third of four restrictor plate races on the yearly Sprint Cup schedule.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. ended the first visit to Daytona in victory lane, celebrating his second-career Daytona 500 victory on the first official race weekend of the season Feb. 23. But when the series headed to Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway for the Aaron's 499, the second plate race of the year, in May, the outcome was strikingly different.
Earnhardt finished a disappointing 26th at Talladega. After the race, popular opinion was that Earnhardt held back; in the closing laps, it appeared he was not even trying to win the race. It was believed that Earnhardt was content with his win from Daytona that practically assured him a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship postseason, so he was satisfied with just riding around when the circuit hit Talladega.
The driver has since admitted that the opinion was supported by truth.
"I hate to talk about it," Earnhardt said. "The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is just really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us. I lost sight of the overall big picture -- what you are out there trying to do, who all is out there depending on you to do it, and what you need to do.
"I learned some lessons, and you are never too old to learn them. You are never too old to be taught a lesson, either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year."
Earnhardt has since put the bad decision he made at Talladega behind him and wiped the restrictor plate slate clean. He is back at Daytona, focused on doing something not many drivers have done -- sweep the year's two races at the track.
His Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson accomplished the feat last year for the first time since Bobby Allison swept Daytona in 1982. In all, only five drivers throughout NASCAR history have swept the yearly races at Daytona. Earnhardt wants to be the sixth.
"I guess Jimmie did it last year, and before that, it was Bobby Allison who did it around '82 or '83 or something," Earnhardt said. "So it's tough to do, especially the way the package is now. It's real hard to get by the leader, and we know that pretty well now from the way we ran in Daytona earlier this year."
Earnhardt can also match Johnson in another category with a win Saturday night in Daytona -- the three-win club. Johnson heads into Daytona as the winningest driver this season with three trips to victory lane. Since his trip to Daytona, Earnhardt has visited victory lane a second time, winning at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., last month. A win Saturday night would be victory No. 3 on the season.
But most of all Earnhardt just wants to win because it is Daytona.
"I would love to sweep the races at Daytona, because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here," Earnhardt said. "So to go to victory lane here, regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me. I expect that we will try to do the best thing that we can to help us strategy-wise, so that we are toward the front. We did it perfectly for the 500, and we were in a position at Talladega to gamble and make it work like several guys did."