DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Polesitter Dale Earnhardt Jr. will keep that title in name alone after a wreck early in Wednesday’s opening practice session (Feb. 16) forced the No. 88 team to pull out the backup car. Pushing teammate Jimmie Johnson off the fourth corner, the two-car tandem came up on a pack of slower cars that began moving up the track.
Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. backed off, but the two-car draft of Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers were unable to get slowed in time. Truex made contact with the rear of Earnhardt’s car, sending them both into the inside wall. The No. 88 and No. 56 teams went to work pulling out the backup cars.
“I just really don’t know what was going on there,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “The guys on the inside looked like they were going to stay low and then they started creeping up and giving Jimmie, and they gave me the impression that they were going to be closing the hole on the outside. So Jimmie lifted, and he about wrecked. I got off the gas and there were a couple guys coming behind me – Truex and a couple of guys – and they didn’t have a chance. You got to pay attention out there, man. If you want to come out here and race you’ve got to pay attention.
“We’ve got plenty of racecars, I’m not worried about how fast we’ll be or whether we’ll be as good. We’ll be fine. But it never feels good tearing them up,” he added. “I’m just disappointed in myself. I didn’t feel good about getting out there and practicing, I didn’t think I needed to be out there practicing, I just had a bad feeling about it. We come up running up on some guys that didn’t have their head on straight and got in an accident.”
In part, Earnhardt Jr. blamed the rule changes made by NASCAR saying the new alterations made the closing rates even more dramatic than before.
“The keep slowing the cars down and it’s making the cars drafting normally so much slower, and now the closing rate on the two-car pack is even faster. It’s just hard, real hard. Hopefully there’s just no more accidents the rest of the week. We’re all kind of getting the hang of it, but the guys that aren’t in a two-car pack need to be aware that those guys are going to come flying up on them faster than they think. You just have to keep that in mind and hold your line.”
Prior to the incident, Earnhardt Jr. had posted the fastest lap of the session at that point at 199.526 mph.
“We caught track of three cars – the [No.] 7 (Robby Gordon), the Taco Bell car (David Gilliland) and the [No.] 15 (Michael Waltrip) – they started on the bottom of the track going into turn 3 and kept creeping their way towards the top,” said Johnson.
“I got to a position when we caught them that I was running out of space and I thought that hole was going to close. I lifted and I got turned sideways from behind and, after watching the video, there was a second pack behind us right there close to us that got into Junior and got him torn up. I just hate it for those guys, they did such a good job to get the pole and that car’s killed. You got to be smart.
“You’ve got to think about things, not only paying attention to your mirrors to connect the bumpers to get locked, but you’ve got to look where you are on the track and not use too much road.”
“I was working with Brian Vickers there – another Toyota,” Truex Jr. said. “We were just getting the switch down and seeing how our cooling system was and how long we could push for. We were just kind of going back and forth there with the [No.] 48 and the [No.] 88 and us two. We came up on some slower cars and it looked like they just came up in front of the [No.] 48 and the [No.] 88.
“When they checked up, I checked up and I was being pushed. They guy behind you can’t see what’s going on. When I talked to Brian, he had no idea that they were even checking up. I saw them kind of wiggling around and getting out of shape and I tried to save it, but the guy pushing is pushing fast and the next thing you know, we’re spinning. It’s unfortunate, but I would rather get it out of the way now and hopefully not wreck in the 500.”
The wreck means Earnhardt Jr. will now be forced to drop to the rear of the field for both the Gatorade 150-mile qualifying race and the Daytona 500, regardless of his finish in the Duel. Since the polesitter and the second-place qualifier are the only two cars locked in the show thus far, Earnhardt Jr. will not be able to race for position in the Duel after going to a backup car. Once Earnhardt Jr. drops to the rear of the field on Sunday, the third car in line – the winner of the first Duel race – will advance to the front row.
Truex Jr. will start at the rear of the field for Thursday’s Duel race, but will be able race for his starting position in the 500 since he had not officially qualified for the race.
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