Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s confidence game

"Confidence," he said after midnight, "is half the battle."

Nah, it's more than that, for him. Maybe 80 percent. He has the finest equipment from Hendrick, the same as Johnson and Gordon have. And Sunday night he showed he can still be the best restrictor-plate racer of all, when the car and his mind are right.

The confidence came gushing out in torrents Sunday night and early Monday, confidence that he can please you after all. And that may well be a watershed in his life.

He laid some foundation last year, running steadily strong, across the board of NASCAR track configurations, with or without restrictor plates, finishing fifth in the points although he didn't win a race.

"We have a lot of confidence coming off such a strong year, and [now] obviously winning this race," he said. "Our confidence couldn't be higher."

He and the 88 were the best driver and the best car in the Daytona 500 since his father dominated the 1990 race, only to run over shrapnel in the third turn on the last lap and fall one mile short of winning.

No driver ever made a car a part of himself quite like his father did. Until Sunday night.

"That car I drove, we got along," Junior said. "We worked as a unit. It just happens."

At the crescendo of the race, flying through the final laps, swarmed by challengers, he was thinking, most of all, of you.

"You realize at that moment there's countless people watching on television, there's countless sitting in the grandstands with your shirts and hats on," he said.

"There's so many people pulling for you, who want to see you win. It's a heavy weight."

All those years he felt he was letting you down, he never felt you let him down.

"The lows you go through, they're with you," he said of you. "We went through some pretty bad lows. They're still there." All of you, he meant.

And so he said, "When I drove down that front straightaway ... it seemed like everybody here was cheering...

"I really feed off that. That is as key to the moment, enjoying the moment, as anything."

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