DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — 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 Thursday'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 even 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.
It will always be an important place for Junior, for better or worse. He knows it, and so does everyone around him.
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.
"I really wouldn't know what to tell you do to as far a series of moves or what kind of mind-set to have," said Earnhardt, whose winless streak is at 129 races. "There is no sure strategy that is going to keep you out of a wreck or having you lead the race off turn four. You just have to go throughout the race and hope you continue to make every decision right, kind of like a line of dominos; you just hope everyone that falls hits the next one.
"Eventually, you come off the last corner and you are in position to try to make that last decision that is going to win the race. That is about it. I think you just have to have good instinct about drafting and what is happening around you. ... You have to be really selfish and always want to help yourself and always do what is going to help you, which is really not my personality, but for whatever reason I'm pretty good at it. Hopefully it will work out for us."
It worked to perfection in 2004, a victory Earnhardt still savors nearly a decade later.
He vividly remembers the raucous celebration in Victory Lane, the unremitting adulation from fans and media, and the flattering comparisons to his late father.
"I had no idea what winning that race would feel like until I won it," Junior said. "I didn't know what to compare that to. When you win that race, it is really hard to explain. All the things that you want out of life and all the pressures you put on yourself or you feel from other people, all the things you want to accomplish; everybody sort of has this mountain in front of them that they put in front of themselves that they want to climb.
"For a moment, or for a day, you are at the top of that mountain."
Nothing else matters, he said. Little things that can be bothersome are distant memories.
"You just feel like you have realized your full potential," he said. "Everything is sort of just maxed out for the day. All the things that you wanted to achieve. Obviously you set a lot of goals for yourself, and that is just one of the goals. But just for a moment, just for that one day, whether it is 30 minutes or an hour after you cross that finish line, you feel like it can't get any better than this.
"It is a pretty incredible emotion. I feel so lucky to have had that opportunity to experience it. It is such a special moment."
Those memories come flooding back every time he sees a replay of the race, especially the celebration.
He would love to create a second version Sunday. And considering that pack racing is back, he has as good a chance as anyone.
"Some of the greatest drivers come through this sport and don't win it," he said. "It just doesn't seem right, but only certain ones get that opportunity."