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Wreck, rain deny Earnhardt's Daytona sweep

July 06, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Despite issues, Hendrick Motorsports driver does rebound to finish 14th

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When the caution came out, the No. 88 car ducked onto pit road for a splash of fuel. The move cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a few spots on the race track, but it would also allow him to run to the finish once the latest pesky shower moved away from Daytona International Speedway.

That was the thinking, at least -- until the skies opened and dumped buckets on NASCAR's most famous race track. While Aric Almirola celebrated his first career Sprint Cup Series victory and the first for the storied No. 43 car in more than a decade, Earnhardt's yeoman attempt at rallying from an early accident ended with a 14th-place finish in Sunday's weather-postponed -- and ultimately, weather-shortened -- event.

The reigning Daytona 500 champion returned to Daytona with a chance to become just the fifth driver to sweep both annual events at the 2.5-mile facility, following in the footsteps of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson -- who last year was the first person to record that feat since 1982. But the day turned problematic from almost the beginning, when Earnhardt was among 16 drivers involved in an early pileup, twice fell off the lead lap, once lost the draft, and still managed to pull his way back into the mix -- until rain finally ended the event, much to Earnhardt's chagrin.

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"I want to get out there and see if we can get a good finish. Anybody can still win this race," he said during the delay before the race was called 48 laps from the scheduled finish. "My car is pretty torn up. The left-front splitter looks a little high, and I think the balance on the car is really tight so when I get in the pack and get behind guys real close, I've got to use up a lot of race track on exit of corners. We've got to figure out what we can do to get better there. But hopefully the rain goes away, and we get going.

"Anybody can still win it. Anything can happen. There can still be another big wreck. I just don't know how it's going to stack up."

After about an hour of waiting out a thunderstorm that initially affected primarily the backstretch, the whole track was drenched and Earnhardt's hopes of getting back out there were dashed. "Well that's that," he wrote on Twitter. "Weather was a real pain in the ass all weekend. Congrats to (Almirola) on his win. Great guy. Deserving. On to NH."

Earnhardt started seventh, but was in the wrong place at the wrong time when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Tony Stewart tangled near the front of the pack, igniting a huge accident that impacted a number of strong cars in the race -- the No. 88 among them. "We were going to be fine on that first wreck, but we got run over," Earnhardt said. Still, the damage seemed less severe than it first appeared. "It’s really not that bad," crew chief Steve Letarte reported. "We've just got to get the splitter up."

The ensuing stop for repairs forced Earnhardt to lose a lap, but the team remained optimistic. "We didn’t hit anything really hard, we just hit a lot of stuff really easy," Letarte said after the race. "It tore the left-front off, right-front off, and both quarterpanels. But we were getting it repaired piece by piece."

Earnhardt got his lap back thanks to a free pass due to a debris caution, although his team continued to make repairs to the car. But Letarte held the car a few seconds too long on one stop, and Earnhardt lost the draft as a result. The driver remained positive -- "I still love y'all," he told his crew as he lingered roughly eight seconds behind the main pack -- and Letarte told him to hold it wide open and wait for another caution. Earnhardt lost another lap, but again got it back on another caution for debris.

And being near the back of the field proved beneficial when Kasey Kahne and Joey Logano tangled to spark a massive 26-car melee that vaulted Earnhardt suddenly to 10th. On a weekend when action was interrupted several times by rain, many believed the shower that ultimately ended the race would blow through, and Earnhardt was among those itching to get back on the track. With two victories in hand this season, Letarte pitted for fuel under the ensuing caution, setting up his driver for a potential run to the end.

"We're here to win," the crew chief said afterward. "We were close enough to our fuel window that it gave us an opportunity to get opposite from the leaders."

They never got the opportunity to put that strategy to use, and Earnhardt was thwarted in his attempt for a first career Daytona sweep -- not that the No. 88 was fixated on that statistic anyway.

"It would have been another win," Letarte said. "We'll take another win any way we can get it. It's funny, the fans and the media make a lot about all those little intricacies, like sweeping at a race track or this or that. As a race team, you have no idea. You just go and try to win every week."

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