NASCAR:Problems persist for Earnhardt Jr.
By Mark Long
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. ó Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled in the pits, wrecked a good chunk of the field on a restart and could have been penalized for spinning Brian Vickers.
Earnhardt had a far-from-normal run in the Daytona 500, at times looking more like a rookie than one of the best restrictor-plate racers.
He finished 27th in Sunday’s rain-shortened opener, hardly the start he wanted in his second year with powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.
“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.
They started when Earnhardt missed his pit stall early. He had to drive the entire length of pit road, then circle the 21/2-mile tri-oval before getting the car back to his crew.
He said part of the issue was 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 stop, 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 rival Kyle 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 into others.
“I was working real hard to get my lap back,” Earnhardt said. “I had a really, really good run on Brian. He drove me down almost into the grass below the line. I didn’t have much control over my car at that point. I was just trying to get back on the race track and hit him in the quarter-panel and spun him out. If he would have just held his ground, we would have been all right. That was unfortunate.”
Vickers and Busch weren’t ready to forgive Earnhardt.
Vickers 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 incident.
“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.”
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.
Earnhardt had calmed down considerably by the time he got out of his car and headed for his pits.
“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.”