Earnhardt overcomes early adversity only to crash out in likely Daytona finale

John K Harrelson/NKP

By Aaron Bearden, Motorsports Editor

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. clawed back into the top 10 from two laps down in Saturday’s Coke Zero 400.

But in the end, what may be his final trip to Daytona International Speedway as a driver ended in an early exit.

Earnhardt started the evening strong, leading the field to the green flag from the pole for the 400-mile race and finishing second in the opening 40-lap stage.

From there, things began to go awry. The two-time Daytona 500 champion was running in the pack on Lap 51 when an incident with Paul Menard sent Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet into the outside wall in Turn 1.

The 14-time MENCS Most Popular Driver award winner was able to maneuver his battered machine to pit road for repairs, but lost two laps in the process after his incident failed to yield a caution flag.

Afterward, Earnhardt blamed his early crash on a tire issue.

“That first deal we brushed the wall a couple of laps earlier and I thought everything was okay,” Earnhardt said. “I came through the tri-oval and I had a right front going down and it was trying to spin out, so I was trying to lift, but there was really nothing I could do because there were so many guys behind me. We got into (turn) one and hit the wall. But the guys worked on the car; we got our laps back and was about to have some more fun – get back up in there and mix it up.

Despite his damage, Earnhardt was able to battle back.

Benefitting from two of the night’s record 14 cautions, Earnhardt regained each of his two laps before the race hit lap 100. From there, the 42-year-old began to rise through the field, entering the top 10 and contending for a place inside of the top five.

In his final start at Daytona – a track that has defined the Earnhardt family – the North Carolinian appeared poised for another special moment.

Then, it all fell apart.

Earnhardt was trailing Kevin Harvick on Lap 106 when a flat tire sent Harvick’s No. 4 Chevrolet into a spin. With nowhere to go, Earnhardt plowed into Harvick’s machine in a crash that also included Kasey Kahne and Daniel Suarez.

This time, Earnhardt’s damage was too much to overcome.

He limped the damaged No. 88 Chevrolet back to his Hendrick Motorsports crew, but their repairs during the five-minute repair clock weren’t sufficient enough for Earnhardt to continue on.

“The 4 car had a flat and just didn’t have anywhere to go,” Earnhardt said. “But we had kind of worked our way back up there after having a little trouble with a flat tire earlier in the race. We got our laps back and I thought things were going to work out to give us an opportunity to give us a run at the end for the checkers.

“The 4 car turned around there, I think he had a flat tire or something there.  I just don’t know where I could have gone or if I could have done anything different.  I don’t know.”

The 18-year MENCS veteran’s final planned Daytona start ultimately ended in a 31st-place finish.

 

“I wish we had had a good finish tonight if not a win,” Earnhardt said. “We were working up in there and having a good time and being aggressive and wearing out the sides of that race car.  It just wasn’t to be.”

While he didn’t get the result he wanted, Earnhardt was pleasantly surprised by the tremendous attention and admiration his final Daytona start brought from his fans – though he’d be content if it isn’t like that every week.

“I just didn’t expect all that attention all week,” Earnhardt said. “My phone buzzing all day long with social media going crazy. Everybody talking about this being my last Daytona race. I hope every weekend isn’t like this as far as that goes.  The attention and the reaction from the fans makes me feel great.  Hopefully we are able to turn that around and back on them for the rest of the season and thank them for all they had done.

“Everything we do is for the fans.  When we came here and won in the No. 3 Wrangler car, that was for Daddy’s fans.  When we won here in ‘01 that was for all of our fans – for his fans.  They are all here. The grandstands are full. Everything we are doing today and the rest of this race are for the fans. I think they are getting a great show.”

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