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Originally published February 22, 2014 at 3:58 PM | Page modified February 22, 2014 at 7:51 PM

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounds optimistic entering Daytona 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 in three of the past four years. NASCAR’s most popular driver is seeking to move forward in Sunday’s race.

The Associated Press

Daytona 500 at a glance

Where: Daytona International Speedway (tri-oval, 2.5 miles), Daytona Beach. Fla.

TV: Race starts at 10 a.m., Ch. 13

Race distance: 500 miles, 200 laps.

First five drivers in the field

Austin Dillon

No. 3 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing

Starting on the pole with the famed No. 3, which is making its return to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since Dale Earnhardt’s death following a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Matt Kenseth

No. 20 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

Won second of two Daytona 500 qualifying races.

Denny Hamlin

No. 11 Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing

Broke a vertebra in his lower back in a last-lap crash in California in March, sat out next four races.

Kasey Kahne

No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Enumclaw native is beginning third season at Hendrick Motorsports. Wound up 12th in the standings last year.

Jeff Gordon

No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports

Finished sixth in the final standings last season.

Note: Martin Truex Jr. qualified in second but will have to start at the back of the field after getting caught in a crash in a qualifying race Thursday night.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It has been a decade since Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lone Daytona 500 victory.

He has come close so many times since, even finishing second three of the last four years, but has yet to make that coveted drive down pit road and into victory lane.

No one should be surprised to find him back there Sunday.

Forget that Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth have won the first three Sprint Cup races during Speedweeks. Disregard that Richard Childress Racing has pole-sitter Austin Dillon, who is driving the No. 3 made famous by Earnhardt’s late father, as well as three other stout cars. Ignore that anything can and often does happen at Daytona International Speedway.

This just might be Junior’s year. The 39-year-old driver seems primed for his best season, and it starts at the track forever linked to his family name because of triumph and tragedy.

“I’m excited about getting back out there,” Earnhardt said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can do and how our performance is going to be right off the bat. It’s going to be a fun year, I think. I think we’re going to enjoy ourselves. We did last year. We seem to get better every year, and hopefully that trajectory is still the same going into this season.”

Earnhardt was fifth in points last season, his best showing since finishing third in 2003. And had NASCAR already switched to its new points system, Earnhardt would have won his first Cup championship.

He had eight top-10 finishes in the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, hitting his stride a few weeks too late to catch Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. Johnson edged Kenseth for his sixth title in the last eight seasons.

Earnhardt won the 2004 Daytona 500, the first of his six victories that season. He won four times from 2005 through 2013.

“It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but time goes by pretty fast,” Earnhardt said. “It seems like these last several years have really flown by, especially when you enjoy yourself. They seemed to grind out when you’re not running too well, but the last couple of years have flown by pretty fast.”

Earnhardt made the Chase the last three years, becoming increasingly comfortable at Hendrick while working with crew chief Steve Letarte. Together, they turned around the No. 88 Chevrolet and made it a contender.

But Letarte announced last month he will step down after this season, leaving to become a race analyst for NBC Sports in 2015. So this year could be the ultra-popular driver’s best chance to win his first Cup championship.

Earnhardt finished second to Jamie McMurray (2010), Kenseth (2012) and Johnson (2013) in recent years at Daytona.

“They’ve all been close,” he said. “In none of those races did I have a situation where I went, ‘I let it slip by. I messed up right there.’ Most of the time, we run our guts out and come to the finish line and we just never had a chance to make a move on the guy leading the race.”

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