If I could pass my good friend Tony Stewart and hold him off in the final laps, I would win the Daytona 500. If I couldn't, then it would be another year of answering the same questions over and over again. Will I ever win the Daytona 500? Do I fear the same agony my father fell into that kept him without a Daytona 500 win until his 20th try? Do I have what it takes to win the biggest race of all?
Those questions weren't just coming from the media. I am my own worst critic, and I sometimes pondered the same things. I used to wonder if I would ever win a Cup race and be able to keep a job driving a race car. I think I've proven by now that I can. But, in this crazy race-where luck plays such a role-you can't help but wonder if it's just not in the cards for you to win. There are many drivers who have won championships and countless races but never the Daytona 500.
Even drivers who are great at restrictor-plate tracks never have the opportunity to lift the Harley J. Earl Trophy. Heading into the 2004 season, I had a pretty damn good record in restrictor-plate events, but I was zero-for-four in the Great American Race. In each of those races, I think I started the race with the best car, or darn near the best car. If I didn't win, I had to point the finger at myself. It's a lot of pressure.
The worst part of not winning the biggest race of the year is having to wait an entire year to try again, with all that winter testing and months of thinking about nothing but this race. I already knew what it was like to finish second, but finishing second would become a thorn in my side the longer I went without winning. The company I drive for, Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI), is known for its superspeedway program. Coming into the 2004 season, DEI had won nine of the last 13 plate races between my teammate [Michael Waltrip] and me. We spend more time and more money on plate races than any other team.
If I couldn't win the Daytona 500 in DEI cars, it was never going to happen. I might as well go get my old job back at the Chevy dealership, especially since Richie Gilmore is building my engines because Richie's success at Daytona is unbelievable. He had already built the winning engine for four Daytona 500s. He builds good motors everywhere, but Daytona is where he shines.
My former crewchief, Tony Eury Sr., and former car chief, Tony Eury Jr., have always built fast superspeedway cars. Tony Sr.-we call him "Pops"-won five in a row with Dad in the Busch Series at Daytona. They learned as they went and applied what they learned every chance they got. Tony Jr. grew up working on those cars, and he developed a real knowledge of what it takes to make a car slice through the air. This whole deal is about people and getting the right people in the right place at the right time.
My car was incredible all week. We struggled with another chassis that I didn't like in the Budweiser Shootout, and we still finished second. But, once I got into my 500 car, it handled really well from the first lap of practice. Handling comes into play more at Daytona than it does at Talladega, and if your car is dialed in, you can worry about strategy and when to make your moves rather than how to keep your car from wrecking.
A lot of the handling at Daytona depends on the weather and what the track conditions are like. I've been in races where we've been really tight and had to lift in the corners, and I've been in races where we were extremely loose. That's a scary feeling when you drive off into Turn 1 and the car feels like it's going to back into the wall. It's like crashing every lap but not hitting anything-until you do hit something. It's even worse when you're on the inside of somebody. You just know the "Big One" is about to happen, and you're the one that's about to start it. But I love it. Nothing's more fun than hangin' on when you're three-wide and every move has to be the right one.