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The Associated Press

Daytona International Speedway always has been a special place to Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

He watched his father spend 20 years chasing a victory in the Daytona 500 and come agonizingly close before finally winning NASCAR’s biggest event in 1998. Then, the elder Earnhardt lost his life in the 500 in 2001.

But, to Junior, who won the big event in 2004, Daytona has not diminished in his eyes.

“There’s so much that comes to mind this week heading to Daytona,” he said as the Nextel Cup series prepared to race in Saturday night’s Pepsi 400. “First, it’s Daytona — which is always a special place for me, no matter what. Then, we’re getting Tony (Eury) Jr. back as crew chief.”

Eury spent the last six weeks on suspension after NASCAR discovered unapproved brackets on the rear wing of Earnhardt’s Car of Tomorrow at Darlington. Junior was docked 100 points for the violation, but it hasn’t hurt him much.

The penalty dropped him from 12th — the final spot in the Chase for the championship — to 14th. But, working with interim crew chief Tony Gibson, Earnhardt has moved back to 12th, and headed into Daytona one point behind 11th-place Clint Bowyer and 127 ahead of 13th-place Ryan Newman.

“Tony Gibson did a great, great job for the last six races, but it’s Tony Jr.’s team and I’m looking forward to having him back in the pits and on the radio,” Earnhardt said. “We really have a lot of momentum going right now and have been running strong every week, so I don’t expect that to change.”

While many people expected Dale Earnhardt Inc. to fold up and die after Junior announced last month that he would leave the team his father founded for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, that has not been the case. Not only has Junior’s team shown its strength, but Martin Truex Jr., like Earnhardt a two-time Busch Series champion, suddenly has come of age for DEI.

Truex won his first Cup race last month in Dover and has four finishes of third or better in the last five events. He has climbed to 10th in the season standings. Earnhardt is expecting a lot more from his friend and teammate.

“Martin led during the 500 (in February) and there’s no hotter team than those guys right now, so I’m anxious to get out there and see how we work together,” Earnhardt said. “It’s good to know you’ve got a teammate that will run up front with you.

“But, on the other hand, we weren’t a very strong team in the Daytona 500. We were OK, but OK isn’t what we expect or what we’re used to at the restrictor-plate tracks.”

Daytona and Talladega, the only tracks where NASCAR requires carburetor restrictor plates to slow the cars, were DEI’s playground for a number of years, with Earnhardt Jr. and then-teammate Michael Waltrip dominating on the big ovals. But that hasn’t been the case recently.

“Some of that is almost by design,” Junior said. “We used to put so, so much focus on the plate events that we struggled at the intermediate tracks. So we all made a conscious decision that we needed to step up our effort at the 1.5- and 2-mile tracks.

“With only so many resources, time and people to go around, we improved a lot in the last year or so on the intermediates, but it meant we weren’t as dominant as we used to be at the superspeedways. It was like selling your soul to win all of those restrictor-plate races and then trading some of it back to be better everywhere else.”

Second time around

The Pepsi 400 was to offer Toyota its first repeat visit to a Nextel Cup track.

The Japanese auto maker, which joined NASCAR’s top series this season, has struggled through the first half of the year, with its teams having trouble qualifying for races and only three top-10 finishes — two by Brian Vickers and one by Michael Waltrip — to show for its efforts.

“We’re definitely looking forward to the second half of the season,” said Andy Graves, NASCAR program manager for Toyota Racing Development. “We feel like it’s going to be much better for us.

“We’ve tried to measure our competition and evaluate where we stand. Obviously, we want to be more competitive than we are today and that’s just the racer mentality in all of us. Now, we start going back to the tracks we’ve already visited and our teams can start accessing the databases they’ve been building. That will be huge for all of us.”

Toyota did get its first Cup pole last week at New Hampshire, where Dave Blaney took the top spot in qualifying.

Home boy

Cup rookie David Reutimann grew up in Zephyrhills, Fla., about 130 miles from Daytona and the track he dreamed of competing on when he was a youngster.

The dream came true in February, when Reutimann, driving a Toyota Camry for Michael Waltrip Racing, made the field for the Daytona 500. He wound up crashing out and finishing 40th, but that didn’t diminish the thrill.

“I cannot describe the joy I felt when we made the Daytona 500,” Reutimann said. “I used to be that guy sitting in the stands wishing I was inside the garage and that wasn’t long ago.

“I owe a lot to (Darrell Waltrip) and Michael. They took a chance on me and I’ll never forget that. DW gave me a full-time truck ride for three years and Michael gave me the chance to go Busch and Cup racing full-time and, for that, I am grateful.”

Reutimann has managed to qualify for 11 of 17 races so far. He sees progress for the struggling three-car team.

“The organization has come a long way,” Reutimann said. “Things keep getting better every week with our car.”

Stat of the week

Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart headed into Saturday night’s race — which he has won the past two years — without a victory in 2007. The last time it took Stewart this long to win a race was 1999, his rookie season.

That year, Stewart needed 25 races to win his first race. He ended the season with three wins. That seemed to set a trend. In 2000, Stewart won six races, beginning with race 13.

Only twice has Stewart won a race before the 11th event of the season. In 2002, he won the fourth race of the year at Atlanta and, last year, he won the sixth race at Martinsville.

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