DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Her name is Amelia, and boy, can she fly.
She’ll be forever treasured by Dale Earnhardt Jr., even though he wants nothing more than to give her away Sunday.
Amelia Earhart is the nickname of the sleek and superfast Chevrolet that Earnhardt drove to three wins last season. The car never finished lower than third in five races, and Earnhardt couldn’t find a reason to keep her out of the upcoming Daytona 500.
The decision was easy. Instead of building a new car specifically for the “The Great American Race” — what most teams do every offseason — Earnhardt opted to give Amelia another shot at getting to victory lane. She delivered Thursday night when Earnhardt won a 150-mile qualifying race to up her record to four wins in six starts over the last 13 months.
“The car really does everything I ask it to do,” Earnhardt said after his win. “When you have a car that you know can do the things that this car can do, you’re willing to take those gambles and risks to pull out and pass. It’s just a fun car to drive. Really special car.”
When Rick Hendrick leaned into the window after Earnhardt’s latest victory, the driver urged his team owner to keep track of Amelia and consider putting her on display in his museum.
For now, he’s just fine if he says goodbye to her Sunday. Daytona International Speedway displays the winning car for a year, and teams gladly exchange them for the trophy. Earnhardt, a two-time 500 winner, decided chassis No. 88-872 needed a name when crew chief Greg Ives declined to retire the car.
“The fact that we’re going to keep running it, I said, ‘We gotta name it,’ and we were thinking of a woman who has accomplished something that was an awesome person that was something we could be proud of,” Earnhardt said. “Amelia Earhart was the first thing that came to my mind. She must have been the most daring. She sort of fits that mold of the courage and determination that you need as a race car driver. She must have had that and more to be able to do the things she did in her lifetime.”
So it’s the car that gives Earnhardt the confidence to make the moves he did Thursday night while winning for the 17th time at Daytona. The victory came on the 15th anniversary of his father’s death. Although he daydreamed about winning to honor his father, he really just didn’t want to embarrass himself with a poor showing.
There was no chance of that happening as he dominated by leading 43 of the 60 laps Saturday and passing Denny Hamlin, winner of last week’s exhibition race, with ease to claim the victory.
Earnhardt dismissed that any special power got him past Hamlin with six laps remaining. Hamlin, who seemingly has one of the few cars that can contend with Amelia, said the pass didn’t surprise him at all.
“I’ve seen those moves a lot because I watch him a lot. You always are watching guys that are really successful at this kind of racing,” Hamlin said. “I kind of knew what was going on, but when he’s coming at such a fast pace from behind, you have to anticipate. It’s almost like a free kick in soccer. It’s like, ‘OK, I committed to the right side and (he) kicked to the left.’”
So Earnhardt’s intent and desire for Sunday are absolutely clear, and through one week of Speedweeks, it’s developing as a Hendrick Motorsports vs. Joe Gibbs Racing showdown, with a possible challenge from Team Penske.
Defending Daytona 500 winner Joey Logano, along with teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, all appear able to keep up. It remains to be seen if they can actually organize enough to become serious threats.
Kyle Busch gave JGR a victory Thursday in the second qualifier, which also included teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards. The three raced nose-to-tail for a bit, but Kenseth wrecked in a last-lap crash that cost him his front-row starting spot. He’ll start from the rear of the field and try to align with his Toyota teammates.
Hamlin was alone in his qualifying race and lacked the help needed to beat Earnhardt — and Amelia.
“I mean, I could have chopped (Earnhardt) a little bit more, but I saw in my mirror it would have been close and it’s just not – this isn’t the time to cut it close,” Hamlin said. “Sunday is probably the time to do it.”