Dale Jr. has poor race at Daytona
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ” Dale Earnhardt Jr. climbed out of his race car, started walking toward his pit and was accosted by Jeff Burton.
Earnhardt was lucky a few more drivers weren’t waiting for him.
NASCAR’s most famous driver wrecked a good chunk of the field on a restart late in the Daytona 500 on Sunday, the low point in a race filled with mistakes by the Hendrick Motorsports star. Believe it or not, Earnhardt looked more like a rookie than one of the sport’s best restrictor-plate racers.
He finished 27th in the rain-shortened season-opener, struggling in the pits, taking out several contenders and leaving some so fuming mad that he might have needed his firesuit just to get through the garage.
Burton was the first to grab his ear, but Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers were way more vocal.
Earnhardt brushed the complaints aside, saying he was merely doing what he needed to do to get back on the lead lap and back in contention.
“We were good. I just had some bad luck,” Earnhardt said. “Every time I would get to the front, there was something that took me to the back, whether it was something I would do or something else. But I had a great car. I could run up in the top five all night.”
Maybe so, but problems overshadowed prowess.
His issues started early, when Earnhardt missed his pit stall during a caution nearly 60 laps in. He had to drive the entire length of pit road, then circle the 2 1/2-mile tri-oval before getting the car back to his crew.
He said the problem was that his pit sign was pink, a color that was supposed to stand out. Instead, several other teams used a similar color, making it difficult to find his spot.
It got worse.
On a later pit, Earnhardt stopped with his right front tire barely touching the outside line of his stall and incurred a one-lap penalty.
“A lap for that is ridiculous,” he said. “If somebody’s pitting outside the box, what’s the big gain that they need a lap taken from them?”
The penalty forced him to line up inside the leaders on the restart, where Earnhardt triggered a nine-car accident that knocked Busch and several others out of the race.
Earnhardt was trying to pass Vickers, also a lap down. Vickers blocked the move by pushing Earnhardt down below the yellow out-of-bounds line. He hit Earnhardt in the process, and when Earnhardt re-entered the racing surface, he clipped the left-rear corner of Vickers’ car. That sent Vickers shooting across the track and crashing into others.
“He ain’t too happy about it, but what the hell, man?” Earnhardt said. “He was driving like a damn idiot. That’s not clever, smart driving. That’s ridiculous. It don’t look clean to me. I hate I wrecked him and everyone else that got in that wreck, but Brian ain’t no saint in the matter.”
Vickers wasn’t about to take responsibility for the incident.
Vickers even questioned why NASCAR didn’t penalize Earnhardt for aggressive driving, particularly since it issued a five-lap penalty to Jason Leffler in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race for a similar move.
“I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us,” Vickers said. “Typically, NASCAR penalizes (for that). I guess they’re not going to penalize (Earnhardt) for it. It’s kind of sad. To wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field is really kind of dangerous. That’s my problem with it. Apparently, he wanted a caution pretty bad.”
NASCAR said the two situations were treated differently because Earnhardt never intentionally wrecked Vickers.
Three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Robby Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Jamie McMurray, Scott Speed and Carl Edwards also were caught up in the accident.
Kyle Busch, though, might have had the most to lose. Busch led a race-high 88 laps before the melee.
“One guy that had problems all day long on pit road and made his problems our problems and our problems a big problem,” Busch said. “It’s just unfortunate with that, and it was really uncalled for two lapped cars to be racing each other and bumping each other like that.”
Earnhardt staunchly defended himself. He even got on the radio and said, “Tell Vickers if he wants to meet me in the garage and get his (butt) beat, I’d be willing.”
“Message delivered,” crew chief Tony Eury Jr. responded.
By the time the race ended because of the rain, Earnhardt had calmed down considerably. He climbed out of his No. 88 Chevrolet and had Burton waiting nearby.
“He was upset with me for making it three-wide and I should have worked with him and all that,” Earnhardt said. “But rain’s coming. Time to try to win the race, you know what I mean?”