DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — It's been more than nine years since Dale Earnhardt Jr. has reached victory lane at a restrictor-plate track.
That's a 36-race winless stretch at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway, two tracks that account for seven of Earnhardt's 19 victories.
In the interim, there have been new cars, varying rules and fresh coats of asphalt at both tracks.
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Everything has changed — except for Earnhardt's belief that he still can master the draft.
"Those cars were amazing that I was driving back then," he said. "Those cars should have won.
"Everybody pretty much has the same car these days. It is a lot harder to win these races and rightfully so. If it were the same playing field, I would be asking myself a lot of questions. But it has changed so much since then.
"At least that is my story."
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The Hendrick Motorsports driver was smiling Thursday, and he has reason for a sunny attitude entering Sunday's Daytona 500. Earnhardt has finished runner-up in three of the past four editions of the Great American Race, and he still enjoys the finicky brand of racing that can be frustrating because it's as easy to lose 20 spots as gain one.
Last year, Earnhardt ranked second to teammate Jimmie Johnson, who swept the races at Daytona, in restrictor-plate points (148).
"I still feel we run well enough at these tracks for me to continue to come into them with confidence just in myself, regardless of the car," Earnhardt said. "I still feel I understand how the draft works rather well and enjoy racing at them. It's a different challenge every time you come back."
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This season's challenge is adapting to a taller spoiler (raised by a half-inch) and a new set of handling conditions that resulted in plenty of action in Saturday's Sprint Unlimited and practice Wednesday.
The closing rate on another car has increased, making it easier to pass but harder to judge positioning with cars often running inches apart at 200 mph.
Side drafting, the concept of pulling tightly alongside another car's rear tire to adversely affect its aerodynamics and stall in traffic, also has become more effective (though Earnhardt notes it's also easier for both cars to get stalled in traffic).
That has raised hopes the action will improve over last year's Daytona 500, which featured mostly single-car lines in the debut of the Generation 6 car.
"This package and the way it drafts is bringing things a lot closer together and making things where guys are racing double file more often," Earnhardt said. "We definitely didn't race enough in the Daytona 500 last year. You couldn't race because you would just go to the back and couldn't risk pulling out because going to the rear was a likely result.
"We haven't been able to race side by side here forever, and I think we can do it without any trouble and put on a great show."
Earnhardt, who hasn't won the season opener at Daytona in 10 years, thinks he will adjust to it as he always has.
"You just have to have an open mind," he said.
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