Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side By Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Junior — Not Vickers — Didn’t Have His Head In The Game
by Tom Bowles
Sunday marked Earnhardt, Jr.’s 19th Sprint Cup start at Daytona. It’s a town that’s housed some of the greatest moments of his career to date, including a 2004 victory in the Great American Race to go along with a July, 2001 victory in the Pepsi 400 — the first Cup event at the 2.5-mile facility since his father passed away six months earlier.
With six top five finishes on the high banks to go along with 383 laps led, it’s clear Earnhardt knows how to get around this place better than almost any other track on the circuit — with the exception of perhaps Talladega and Richmond. In my opinion, that’s what makes Sunday’s major incident tougher to take for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver; a track that he expects to win at every time out is now forever linked with his most embarrassing moment behind the wheel instead. And deep down — underneath repeated denials of who caused what on Sunday — I’m fairly certain he might actually agree with that assessment.
There’s two main reasons Earnhardt is clearly to blame for this year’s version of the Big One. First off, if you look at the video of the incident, he hits Vickers not once, but twice before the No. 83 spins in front of traffic. As the cars come up to speed down the backstretch, you can see the No. 88 turn down below the yellow line after the first hit, allowing Vickers a chance to bring his car under control. It’s in those two seconds Junior needed to make a critical decision; he could have backed off, allowing Vickers to slide in front of him, or choose the more aggressive maneuver of continuing to try and make the pass. Of course, we all know already a frustrated Earnhardt chose option number two, gassing it to the right while tapping Vickers just enough to turn the front of the field into a tattered mess of broken sheet metal.
Certainly, it’s OK to bump someone once down the straightaway — everyone makes mistakes, and after all, Vickers was pulling a blocking maneuver on the No. 88. But to push forward a second time — with two seconds in between hits — was clearly a choice Earnhardt didn’t have to make. Take a look at the drivers on the inside line surrounding him. In the worst case scenario, even if Earnhardt sucks it up and loses speed, he only falls behind three other cars, settling in right behind teammate and defending champion Jimmie Johnson. Considering the way teamwork is written into the Hendrick contract, do you really think Johnson would have left him out to dry? The two could have easily hooked up together, finding themselves in an even better position one or two laps later than the one Earnhardt was trying to force through a sudden banzai move down the backstretch.
Certainly, I can understand the frustration level of the man at the time. He’d already had two major pit road miscues that took a possible winning car out of contention; not only did Earnhardt drive the No. 88 past its pit under caution, but he stopped the car outside its pit box during a subsequent yellow flag, drawing a required one lap penalty by NASCAR that left him fuming in the cockpit.
But anger is never an adequate excuse for on-track aggression gone awry. And what bothers me the most about this incident is it occurred on the first lap of a restart, no less — before the cars were even fully up to speed. Yes, I know the rain was coming, and I understand the importance of getting a Lucky Dog position as quickly as possible. But was it really necessary to take an aggressive chance on grabbing that spot before the first lap back under green is even complete? Was a caution really going to come out that fast? There would have likely been plenty of time for Junior to put himself in position to get his lap back; I think we can all agree that of all the cars one lap down at the time, he appeared to have the best-handling car by a longshot.
But Junior wasn’t thinking about all that. For a few critical seconds Sunday, he forgot about thinking ahead, his expert knowledge of the draft, and the reality that Vickers’ block is one of about 1,000 that occurs on the back straightaway during a 500-mile race at Daytona under these rules. No, instead Junior got a little ticked, lost common sense for about five seconds, and made a desperate maneuver that didn’t pay off and wrecked half the field. And then, the best part is he had the audacity to play the victim instead of apologize, issuing a litany of post-race press conference quotes that smelt like the stink of a man in denial.
“He shouldn’t have started that, it would have never happened,” he said of Vickers’ “untimely” block. “If he had held his ground, who knows? He would have probably got the back or got the position back eventually, but at that point in the race, that was pretty reckless.”
Sorry to say, Junior, but the only person reckless in that situation was you. And for a guy 10 years into the league claiming he’s in position to challenge for a championship this season, I can’t imagine getting off to a more difficult start.
Slow Traffic, Stay To The Right – Earnhardt Exonerated in Daytona Dust Up
by Vito Pugliese
It was a rough Daytona 500 for Earnhardt, Jr., to say the least. First, he drives past his pit stall under caution, and has to go all the way around again to make his stop. Later, when he did find his pit crew, he had what appeared to be the sidewall of his tire resting against the line of the pit box. His team must not have seen the NASCAR official frantically waving them off to stop working on the car (probably because they were too preoccupied with pushing him out of the way), which resulted in a one-lap penalty that took them right smack out of contention. This action would completely change the outcome of the race, and precipitated the multi-car incident that was to immediately follow on the restart.
But that wreck, as far as I’m concerned, was the work of Vickers — not Earnhardt, Jr.
Now, before I am labeled just another member of the media who kisses Junior’s butt, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am an exceptional member of the media. And I have not… had… osculation with Junior’s butt. Not a single time. OK, that was my best Bill Clinton impression; I’m writing this on President’s Day, after all.
So, where’s my proof? If you review the tape from the backstretch and infield angles, you will witness Vickers swerve across three lanes of traffic to block Earnhardt, Jr.’s pass attempt. Was it a legal move by Vickers? Yes. Was it ill advised?
As former VP candidate and snowbound cutie Sarah Palin would say, “You betcha!”
The telemetry from both cars showed that Vickers was traveling at 174 mph, while Earnhardt, Jr. had achieved 179 mph at the time of his “run.” Now, even though I went to a public school, I do know that a five mph difference on the racetrack is not exactly insignificant when dealing with hundredths of a second at the restrictor plate races of Daytona or Talladega. Junior had closed a distance of five car lengths from the exit of Turn Two up to the initial point of contact halfway down the backstretch. The No. 88 was in the process of passing the No. 83 car, who was moving at a significantly slower rate of speed, when Vickers went to block and impeded Earnhardt’s progress.
Vickers had run so far down to the inside of the racetrack after making contact with the fender of the No. 88 car, in fact, the yellow out of bounds line was bisecting the two Red Bulls on the hood of his Toyota. Now, think back to the 2006 Daytona 500 when Tony Stewart did the same thing to Matt Kenseth at about the same point on the race track. Remember the result? That was about to replay itself again, except this time, the aggressor’s actions got the best of him. Earnhardt, Jr. quickly turned back to the right in an effort – to his contention – get back in line to make the corner that was ahead.
At this point, everybody is entitled to his or her own opinion of what happened next. Was Earnhardt really trying to spin Vickers out of frustration and anger… or was he just trying to fall back in line so he could make the proper entry into Turn Three?
If you are of the opinion Earnhardt did it intentionally, well, then how was he able to do it so he barely caught Vickers with just the tip of his bumper, yet minutes earlier, could not find the blinding magenta “88” being waved at him by guys in uniforms that look exactly like his? How can he not have the depth perception to park a car in a garage stall, but can cross the “T” in Toyota with a hood pin at 179 mph?
My take on that incident is this: ever since the untimely death of Earnhardt, Jr.’s father at this very track and the event that defined him eight years ago, what has NASCAR railed about on restrictor plate tracks? NO BLOCKING. If you were caught aggressively blocking, you were going to be black flagged. If you passed below the yellow line, you would be black flagged, except if you were forced below said out of bounds line (unless your name was Regan Smith).
The bottom line is, Earnhardt, Jr. had the right of way, and Vickers made a bad choice to block him at an inopportune time. Like your typical mouth breather on the interstate who negligently drifts into the passing lane at 65 mph while texting on their Blackberry, Vickers opted to obstruct the path of a car who was in the process of overtaking him at a much greater speed, halfway down the backstretch, going in a straight line… not turning. If Vickers was going to do something like that, I’m shocked he didn’t just slam on his brakes to top it all off — my other favorite highway maneuver.
But Vickers should be well aware that type of movement on this track can come with dangerous consequences. Even Elliott Sadler, overcome with emotion prior to being passed for the lead with rain on the way, didn’t throw a flying body-block on Kenseth. Why? Because you aren’t supposed to. When you do stuff like that – i.e., swerving across the race track at nearly 200 mph – bad things happen.
Now, was Earnhardt trying to hook him and spin him into the infield — not in front of the pack? Was it payback for Vickers’ similar move that took out he and Johnson at Talladega in 2006? These things do have a habit of policing themselves, after all. But if you think it was intentional, or bemoan the loss of NASCAR’s past, it wasn’t anything his old man wouldn’t have done.
However, it is my contention that this contact would have been preventable had Vickers simply stayed in line and allowed Earnhardt’s faster traveling car to pass by. And what is unfortunate in the mess that ensured is that Kyle Busch was denied a shot at winning a race he dominated, while being turned into the wall teeth first — at a point where there is no SAFER barrier. It is also regrettable that privateer Robby Gordon had a fast race car ruined, while Denny Hamlin suffered yet another inauspicious Daytona 500.
But with the resulting fallout from the Vickers/Earnhardt affair, I am reminded of Clint Eastwood’s trademark catch phrase in the second Dirty Harry installment, Magnum Force – A man’s got to know his limitations.
Unfortunately for Kyle Busch, Hamlin, Robby Gordon, and others, Vickers found his by way of the bumper of the No. 88 Chevrolet.