July 3, 2014 at 1:00 am

Thursday's motor sports roundup: Talladega finish still eats at Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. prepares to get in his car during a NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session Thursday at Daytona International Speedway. (Terry Renna / Associated Press)

Daytona Beach, Florida It had been 31 years since a driver won both Daytona races in the same season when Jimmie Johnson pulled off the Sprint Cup Series sweep. A year later, his teammate wants to complete the feat.

But for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win the Coke Zero 400, he cant race the way he did at Talladega Superspeedway in May.

The Daytona 500 winner went to Talladega thinking hed win another restrictor-plate race, but instead finished 26th in a performance that still haunted him Thursday when he showed up at Daytona International Speedway.

Its embarrassing man, I hate to talk about it, Earnhardt said before the first of two practice sessions for Saturday nights race.

The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of the race was just uncharacteristic really of anybody that is in the field trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us and lost sight of the overall big picture and what youre out there trying to do and who all is out there depending on you to do what you need to do. I learned some lessons.

Hell attempt to apply the lessons in the 400-miler Saturday night, where hell most likely race hard and try to lead much the same way he did when he won the season-opening Daytona 500. The February race had a frantic pace because of a rain stoppage that lasted 6 hours, 22 minutes. When the racing resumed, Earnhardt was determined to win his second Daytona 500.

Earnhardt led six times for a race-high 54 laps all after the rain delay and ended a 55-race losing streak that dated to 2012 with the win.

But at Talladega, he wasnt at all the same racer.

Earnhardt led 26 laps early and gambled hed have no trouble making it back through the traffic when he was shuffled to the rear. When it became clear he had his work cut out for him, Earnhardt opted to take it easy and nurse his Chevrolet home for a clean finish.

Fans were livid.

I think I got real selfish at Talladega and what the result and how the result affected anyone I never took into account, he said. I really just was out there thinking more about me and what I thought and what I wanted to do and how frustrated I was.

I forgot that theres a team behind me depending on me and a lot of fans there to see us race and show up to spend their hard earned money. Definitely was a difficult thing to go through.

Earnhardt has eight wins at plate tracks four behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon for the active-driver lead and wants another win. Johnson, who goes into Saturday night with three wins in the last six races, believes his teammate has a shot at the sweep. Before Johnson did it last year, the last driver to sweep Daytona was Bobby Allison in 1982.

If I dont have a chance to win the race, I wouldnt mind if he did, Johnson said. Hes going to be fast. Hes going to be strong and have a very good opportunity to win. That stat went 30 years for a reason. Its not easy because in plate racing, anything can happen. Hes the one who gave me that phrase about If I make it to the white, and youre in the picture, you have a shot at winning. If he can make it to the white he will definitely be a threat.

Earnhardt is aware of the ability to sweep, and recognizes how difficult it would be to complete.

I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing, but I just love winning here, he said. To go to Victory Lane here, regardless of what we did in February, would mean a lot to me. I expect that we will try to do the best thing that we can to help us strategy-wise so that we are toward the front.

Hamlin's hopes

Denny Hamlin returns to Daytona International Speedway looking for the one podium position that eluded him in February.

He had one of the most successful Speedweeks in recent memory when he opened the season with a victory in the exhibition Sprint Unlimited and another win in the Budweiser Duel qualifying race. But when it counted, the Daytona 500, Hamlin fell one spot short and finished second behind Earnhardt Jr.

Hamlin did, however, earn his first career points-paying restrictor plate race victory in May at Talladega Superspeedway.

But he wants that Daytona victory, especially after a disappointment at Kentucky when a blown front tire on the 27th lap led to a last-place finish.

We have obviously had a lot of success in the restrictor plate races this year, he said. I think I have learned a lot about that style of racing over the years. I was always the guy that tried to start a new line and make something happen, and it didnt always work out for me.

I think this year I have been a little more patient and let the race come to me a bit more.

Narrower focus

Kyle Larson was the busiest man in racing a year ago, when he traveled coast to coast to race in anything he could.

A promotion to the Sprint Cup Series for Chip Ganassi Racing meant he had to cut back his schedule, which hasnt been as devastating as Larson had feared.

Its not been bad at all, he said. I was surprised, being such a die-hard sprint car racer, I thought not racing a lot of dirt track stuff this year would be bad, that Id be bored. But Im not.

Instead, Larson has found his NASCAR commitments have him so busy theres very little time to race sprint cars. Hes a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series, where hes vying for his first win of the season and trying for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, and pulls double duty on companion weekends with the Nationwide Series


Sprint Cup

Coke Zero 400

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

Schedule: Friday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 5-6:30 p.m.); Saturday, race, 7:30 p.m. (TNT, 6:30-11 p.m.)

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

2013 winner: Jimmie Johnson


Subway Firecracker 250

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

Schedule: Friday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 3-4:30 p.m.), race, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 7-10 p.m.)

Distance: 250 miles (100 laps)

2013 winner: Matt Kenseth


Pocono IndyCar 500

Track: Pocono Raceway (triangle, 2.5 miles), Long Pond, Pa..

Schedule: Saturday, practice, qualifying (NBC Sports Network, 7-8 p.m.); Sunday, race, 1 p.m. (NBC Sports Network, noon-4 p.m.)

Distance: 400 miles (160 laps)

2013 winner: Scott Dixon

Other races

Formula One: British Grand Prix, Silverstone (England) Circuit (road course, 3.667 miles), 8 a.m. Sunday CNBC

NHRA: Summit Racing Equipment Nationals, Summit Motorsports Park, Norwalk, Ohio, 9 a.m. Sunday ESPN2