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No hard feelings between Dale Jr., Ambrose

February 15, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Junior's night ends following late contact with Ambrose that puts No. 88 car into the wall

RELATED: Sprint Unlimited results

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- That darn bent steering.

"He bent the steering in my car," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I couldn’t steer very good."

NASCAR's most popular driver said it with a wry half-smile, after contact with Marcos Ambrose put the No. 88 car into the frontstretch wall and ended Earnhardt's pursuit of a victory in the season-opening Sprint Unlimited exhibition at Daytona International Speedway. Earnhardt repaid the Australian with a side-to-side bump as both cars rolled down the backstretch, and then headed to the garage to park his Chevrolet a handful of laps from the finish.

Bent steering? Please.

"Nah, we were just having fun," Earnhardt confessed. "And his car was already torn up, so it didn't get hurt any worse than it already was. He was trying to go, and I know he was trying to do what he thought he needed to do, and so was I. … But we were just having fun. No big deal. I wasn’t trying to spin him out or nothing. His car was pretty tore up, so was mine. I like Marcos. We get along good."

The accident ended a strong bid that saw Earnhardt lead the 75-lap race with 12 circuits to go, backing up the speed he had shown by topping the board in practice one day earlier. But on a night defined by mechanical mayhem -- reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson sailed into the wall early, and contact between Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano resulted in a nine-car wreck that whittled an already exclusive field down to just nine vehicles -- Earnhardt was hardly immune.

Earnhardt was drafting ahead of Ambrose and began searching for lanes around the cars in front of him when the Richard Petty Motorsports driver moved to the outside. The resulting contact pinched Earnhardt into the wall, crumpling the right side of the No. 88 car to the point where it was too damaged to continue.

"Just miscommunication," said Earnhardt, who finished ninth. "I didn't know he was there. Been in the same situation before. It's nothing new."

Earnhardt originally said the wrecked vehicle was his backup car for the Daytona 500, but his Hendrick Motorsports team later confirmed it was not. Ambrose, who was able to stay on the track and finish seventh, was effusive in placing the blame on himself.

"Just feel bad for Junior," he said. "I feel really sorry for what happened there. I was just trying to help him, really. I was just trying to give him a push, and I'm not sure if he moved to side-draft me and came back across. Unfortunately, it ruined his night and really ruined mine, too. So yeah, we'll take our lumps here. Sorry to Junior Nation. I didn’t mean to do it. I'll try to help him in the 500."

Ambrose also understood the reason behind the post-crash bump.

"It's OK," he said. "Junior's a great guy, and he's been great to me in the sport, and I've never had any hard feelings with him. It was unnecessary to get in the fence in the first place, so no drama. I'll try to find him and apologize a little bit. Hope he's not too mad."

He certainly didn't seem it in the garage area, as his crew scrambled around his wrecked car. "We had a good car, and were just having some fun," Earnhardt said. As crazy as the race was, he added, he liked the fact that drivers could get runs on one another. But openings in the draft apparently close up quicker than they used to -- perhaps one reason behind the big wreck, sparked when Kenseth came down into Logano -- and the side-draft poses more of a challenge.

What does that portend for the remainder of Speedweeks?

"It's going to be lots of wrecking," Earnhardt said, "because of the way these cars side-draft, and you get stalled out beside each other and you sort of get packed up around each other, and the guys behind you are either going to push you or go around you. It's just going to cause a little bit of trouble, and we saw it tonight. But this race has always been expensive, so it's no real surprise what we saw tonight."

The Great American Race could be different, though, because of its daytime green flag. "The Daytona 500 will be a great race, because it's hot, greasy, and more of a challenge on the handling package," Earnhardt said. "You’ve got to drive the car more, and it's a bigger challenge when you run these races during the daytime."

It certainly looked like a handful Saturday night, when Earnhardt's crash capped a series of accidents and left Ambrose looking to apologize in person.

"I'm going to try and find him later on if he wants to talk to me," Ambrose said. "But yeah, it's just what happens here in a race that only counts to win, and we're all trying to push to the front. And unfortunately, it was just a bad day."

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