Teammate mistake dooms Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Richmond

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

After staying out later than the majority of the field during a round of green flag stops, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. found himself in dire need of a caution to maintain his position on the lead lap.

However, he didn’t need to be the caution.

But such was the case in Sunday’s Toyota Owners 400, when contact with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson left NASCAR’s most popular driver in the wall to bring out a yellow flag.

Earnhardt was biding his time on the high line in search of a caution on lap 345 when Johnson – running with fresher tires after pitting – dove under Earnhardt’s No. 88 in Richmond International Raceway’s (RIR) Turn 2.

Coming off of the turn and onto the backstretch, Johnson’s No. 48 drifted the track and into Earnhardt, sending the two-time Daytona 500 champion into the outside wall and forcing a yellow.

Johnson rallied to an 11th-place finish despite the damage. Earnhardt continued on, but the damage resulted in a second trip into the wall on lap 357 and a 30th-place result.

Afterward, Johnson claimed he didn’t know Earnhardt was to his outside.

“I just have to try to figure out if I just didn’t hear it being told to me or if it wasn’t told to me,” Johnson said. “I just feel terrible, obviously.  Man, I’m surprised our cars even kept rolling after that because I just body slammed him into the wall and I could have easily not heard the clear or something else happened.  I don’t know, but that’s the last thing you want to have happen with a teammate.”

For Earnhardt, Sunday’s 30th-place result was his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the opening nine events of the 2017 season. The 18-year MENCS veteran also tallied his third DNF, already his highest tally since 2013.

“He said he didn’t see us,” Earnhardt said.

“Came off the corner and didn’t know the car was there.  It was an explosion, but the car held up pretty well.  It knocked the sway bar arm off of it, so we ran the last bit of the race without a sway bar hooked up.

The tough ending came amid a subpar day for the No. 88 team. Earnhardt had spent the major of the race outside of the top 10. It certainly wasn’t the sort of day the former RIR winner had hoped for in his first race since announcing his retirement at the end of the season.

“It wasn’t a great day,” Earnhardt admitted. “We did make a lot of adjustments and that last run I was pretty happy. Obviously, we were trying a pretty wild strategy staying out.  I was pretty comfortable it was going to work because our lap times were pretty decent and everybody else was coming to us that had pitted.  So, it wasn’t going to be too bad.  Just terrible luck.

“I don’t know what to do.  But, we were probably going to finish anywhere around 10th to 15th today, not all that awesome, but (sigh) we just had such terrible luck.”

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