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Earnhardt Jr. aiming for a season-sweep at Daytona

<p>For more than 30 years, a season-sweep had not occurred at Daytona until Jimmie Johnson -- Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports -- accomplished the feat in 2013. Johnson became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 and the 400-mile July race here since Bobby Allison in 1982.</p>

For more than 30 years, a season-sweep had not occurred at Daytona until Jimmie Johnson -- Earnhardt's teammate at Hendrick Motorsports -- accomplished the feat in 2013. Johnson became the first driver to win the Daytona 500 and the 400-mile July race here since Bobby Allison in 1982.

Fireball Roberts (1962), Cale Yarborough (1968) and LeeRoy Yarbrough (1969) are the other drivers who have won both races at Daytona in the same season.

"I would love to sweep the races at Daytona because that is a cool thing," Earnhardt said. "I just love winning here. So 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."

Earnhardt won the 400-mile race at Daytona for the first time in July 2001, nearly five months after his father's fatal crash during the last lap of the Daytona 500. But Earnhardt has not been to victory lane for the 400-miler here since then.

This weekend's race at Daytona is the third of four restrictor-plate races in the series this year. The final restrictor-plate event of the season is scheduled for Oct. 19 at Talladega (the sixth round in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship).

When the series ran its most recent restrictor-plate race in May at Talladega, Earnhardt had led three times for a total of 26 laps and was in contention to win until the final few laps when he fell back in the pack and ended up finishing 26th. Earnhardt took blame for his poor finish there.

"It was embarrassing," he said. "I hate to talk about it. The way we ran and what I chose to do at the end of that race is just really uncharacteristic of anybody that is in the field and trying to compete. I just got really frustrated with the way things were working out for us.

"I lost sight of the overall big picture, what you are out there trying to do, who all is out there depending on you to do it, and what you need to do. I learned some lessons and you are never too old to learn them. You are never too old to be taught a lesson either. I definitely experienced that in Talladega this year.

Since Talladega, Earnhardt has recorded six top-10 finishes in seven races. He won the June event at Pocono after passing Brad Keselowski for the lead with five laps to go. Earnhardt's two wins during the regular season has all-but- secured him a spot in the Chase, which begins on Sept. 14 at Chicagoland. He is currently third in the point standings (24 points behind leader and teammate Jeff Gordon).

The last time Earnhardt won more than one race during a season was in 2004 when he drove for Dale Earnhardt Inc. He posted six victories that year, including his first Daytona 500 win.

Earnhardt has been in the Chase each year since he was paired with crew chief Steve Letarte in 2011. Prior to the start of this season, Letarte announced that he will leave Earnhardt's team at the end of the year and join NBC Sports for its coverage of NASCAR next season.

For now, Earnhardt and Letarte are focused on winning the championship.

"I am just thrilled with the way the team is competing," Earnhardt said. "I know we have been doing some great work since the beginning of the Chase last year, maybe even a little bit before that. I thought in the Chase we had done everything just right except for Chicago. I thought that whatever happens in the offseason is going to tell us if we can be good enough to win a championship this year.

"If you look at the graph going back to 2011 when Steve and I got together, if you look at our performance, it's been a linear trajectory in improvement. It just seemed to make sense that this year would be that much better."

Only once has Earnhardt scored a season-sweep at a track during his 15-year career in the Cup Series, doing so in 2002 at Talladega, as part of his four wins in a row there.

Forty-four teams are on the entry list for the Coke Zero 400.

Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, July 5. Race: Coke Zero 400. Site: Daytona International Speedway. Track: 2.5-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 160. Miles: 400. 2013 Winner: Jimmie Johnson. Television: TNT. Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.

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