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Junior's confidence rises at Daytona

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. left Daytona frustrated and furious last July.

One of his favorite tracks, the place forever linked to his family name, had become a bore.

Junior disliked every aspect of the newfangled tandem racing at NASCAR's superspeedways: the blind pushing, the feeling of not being in total control and the need for constant communication.

"It was a foolish freakin' race," he said after a 19th-place finish.

His outlook has changed considerably since. Between some NASCAR-mandated changes, results during testing and 54 wild laps in the exhibition Budweiser Shootout, Earnhardt's concerns have been alleviated.

Now, he might even be considered a front-runner heading into today's qualifying race and Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500.

"I do feel like I have a better shot at winning in this current style of racing," Earnhardt said Wednesday. "I do feel more confident than I did coming down here and tandem drafting. I never felt really great about that. It is a completely different style of racing and it's not what I enjoyed. I definitely feel better about this."

Still, Earnhardt and others believe tandem racing in the final laps will determine the outcome in the qualifying races and "The Great American Race."

But not having to push, pull, sweat and swap for 200 laps around the high-banked track means everything to NASCAR's most popular driver -- and maybe more fun to his legion of fans.

After all, Earnhardt won the 2004 Daytona 500 and has a dozen other victories at NASCAR's most storied track. It's also the place where his father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, won 34 races and died on the final lap in the 2001 opener. So Daytona has become synonymous with the Earnhardt legacy.

And now that the racing has returned, at least in part, to the pack style Junior enjoys and seems to thrive in -- it was just two years ago that he stormed through the field on the final lap and finished second to Jamie McMurray in a thrilling finish -- it only makes sense that he would be a favorite again.

Nonetheless, he knows he needs good fortune to stay out front.

"There is no sure strategy that is going to keep you out of a wreck or having you lead the race off turn four," Earnhardt said. "You just have to go throughout the race and hope you continue to make every decision right."

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