Former Daytona 500 winner looks forward to less tandem drafting
CONCORD, N.C. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. has recorded some of the greatest moments of his career at Daytona International Speedway. But the crash he was involved in two weeks ago while testing at the restrictor-plate track does not rank among them.
Twelve cars were banged up in the first -- and ultimately, only -- drafting session at Preseason Thunder, the debut of NASCAR’s new Generation-6 Sprint Cup cars on Daytona’s high banks. The accident was sparked when Earnhardt made contact with the rear of Marcos Ambrose’s car, unaware that the bumpers on the more brand-identifiable vehicles wouldn’t match up as well as those on their predecessors.
“I thought long and hard, and that was probably the most embarrassed I’d ever been, in a long time,” Earnhardt said Wednesday during a stop at Hendrick Motorsports by the NASCAR Sprint Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway. “As long as I can remember.”
Tuesday, Jan. 22 Video: NASCAR President Mike Helton on the Gen-6 car
The emotion is understandable, given that Earnhardt is a Daytona 500 champion and regarded as one of the greatest restrictor-plate drivers of his era. His trademark has always been his ability to make something happen on his own, to swoop through the high line and roar to the front -- which is how he nearly won the Great American Race in 2010, when he finished second to Jamie McMurray.
The next season, tweaks to the cars’ front ends and a resurfacing at Daytona brought about tandem drafting that made drivers more dependent on one another, and frustrated a competitor like Earnhardt more accustomed to taking control by himself. Now, though, what little drafting teams did at Preseason Thunder gives Earnhardt the impression that his fate might once again be in his own hands.
“The draft really reminds me of how we had the cars probably in ’06, ’07,” he said. “The cars pull up well, and you can work with other people even though the bumpers don’t line up exactly the way they used to the last couple of years. The way you help people is more how we used to do it six or seven years ago. … I’m really excited about that, and getting back to that sort of older style of plate racing.”
Also excited is crew chief Steve Letarte.
“I think the more you separate the responsibility or accountability to have a second car, and have two cars faster than the pack, I think is just going to work into Dale Jr.’s hands,” he said. That’s a far cry from what it was like in 2011, his first Speedweeks with NASCAR’s most popular driver, when the tandem drafting emerged.
“I remember the first year we showed up at Daytona … and he went out and made it look so easy in practice,” Letarte said. “I was like, ‘This is going to be the best Speedweeks ever. This is going to be amazing.’ Then about 15 minutes later, they hooked up nose-to-tail, and Pandora’s Box opened. … So what I saw down there in Daytona (at testing) gave me a completely rejuvenated feel about speedway racing, and I’m much more excited to go down there to Daytona than I have been for years.”
That optimism only made the testing crash more of a downer. Earnhardt didn’t feel the need to contact anyone afterward -- he believes everyone involved understood it was an honest mistake -- but that didn’t make it any easier to watch so many teams leave the test early, either because they sustained too much damage to continue or weren’t willing to draft anymore.
“Everyone was really excited to see how they drafted and how things went,” he said. “And after that accident, nobody wanted any more drafting. We didn’t, either. A lot if teams went home, and I realized it’s a new car, and everyone’s there to learn new things and uncover specifics about the car, and a lot of that was taken away from those teams because of the mistake and the accident. So I feel like I short-handed a bunch of guys at that test.”
But it didn’t dampen Earnhardt’s hopes for this season’s Daytona 500, particularly given how much more control individual drivers seem to have in the draft. Earnhardt finished second in the event last year behind Matt Kenseth.
“I feel pretty good about my abilities,” he said. “It didn’t really bother me as far as my confidence goes and how I’m going to drive and how I’m going to race out there. But I definitely don’t like being that guy that makes those type of things happen. I tend to not want to be in that conversation.”
Given that the testing crash could be a glimpse of the end of the Daytona 500, memories of Preseason Thunder probably won't last for long.
“Give it another four or five weeks, and everybody will have forgotten about that crash,” Letarte said. “I’m sure there’ll be a lot more.”