News & Media

Strong Earnhardt effort cut short at Daytona

February 21, 2011, David Caraviello,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Despite being in top five in G-W-C, finishes 24th after flat tire and crash

Few drivers had a more active Speedweeks than Dale Earnhardt Jr. There was a crash in the season-opening Budweiser Shootout last weekend, a crash in practice Wednesday that forced him into a backup car, and a crash in the final laps of Sunday's Daytona 500. Yet what kept NASCAR's most popular driver from winning NASCAR's biggest event was something far more mundane.

A flat tire forced Earnhardt to pit road with one lap remaining in the regulation distance, placing him back in traffic when he was collected in a four-car accident on the first attempt at a green-white-checkered finish. Earnhardt was in the top five and vying for the victory when he radioed to crew chief Steve Letarte that the left-rear was going down, and wound up with a 24th-place finish despite having one of the stronger cars in the field.

"We got a flat tire and got ourselves in the back there, and I was coming around [Turns] 1 and 2 and all those guys were running into the back of each other on the inside, and it was crazy."


"The guys on the team and back at the shop worked really hard to get us to this point, and we had a fast car and tried to do the best we could [Sunday], but it came down to all the carnage out there," Earnhardt said. "Too much carnage out there."

Ultimately, Earnhardt was caught up in an accident that brought out the last of the event-record 16 cautions. Earnhardt was running along the bottom with Tony Stewart, his preferred drafting partner on the afternoon, when the line of cars began checking up and then going sideways. Earnhardt wound up with damage severe enough that he couldn't finish the event, even though he had completed 202 laps of a race that would ultimately be extended to 208.

"We got a flat tire and got ourselves in the back there, and I was coming around [Turns] 1 and 2 and all those guys were running into the back of each other on the inside, and it was crazy," Earnhardt said. "And [Robby Gordon] got turned down in the apron, and they had a wreck. ... Some guys got into the wall on the outside, and I was just trying to avoid that and got to the center there, and got hooked in the right rear. But I don't know. We have had some pretty tough luck down here, and didn't get the finish we wanted."

Or perhaps the finish they were capable of, given that Earnhardt's No. 88 car was fast enough to earn the Daytona 500 pole in qualifying last weekend. But it was also 10 days of crisis management for Letarte, who moved over from the program of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon during the winter. In the Shootout, Earnhardt was caught in a chain-reaction accident. In practice, he was hooked from behind while in a tandem draft. Two damaged race cars required shuttling one vehicle back to North Carolina, and the trip to a backup also forced the team to give up their pole position and start the 500 from the rear.

And yet, despite all of that, the opportunity was there. "Green-white-checkered for all the money!" Letarte exhorted on the radio as the endgame began to unfold. Debris and a flat tire intervened.

"The only part of the weekend we were disappointed with was the finish," Letarte said. "I thought the team did a remarkable job. I thought the driver did a remarkable job. ... The crash in practice was just circumstances, the crash in the Shootout was just circumstances, and surely the crash in the 500 was circumstances. But [Earnhardt] put us in a lot of good circumstances all week long. The green-white-checkered, we were riding around in fifth before we had a flat tire, and it kind of all went downhill from there."

While it lasted, though, it was a spirited race for Earnhardt, who like everyone else in the field tried to find the right partners in a draft where two vehicles linked together was the fastest way around the track. Ultimately he teamed best with Stewart, his partner in many restrictor-plate events past, and the driver who pushed Earnhardt to victory at Talladega in 2001 as well as the Daytona 500 three years later. It was Stewart who clicked to Earnhardt's radio channel and proposed they work together, two veterans who wanted to just make some laps and avoid so much of the craziness that was erupting around them.

"That's exactly what I want to do," responded Earnhardt, who led three times for nine laps. "I don't want to get pushed up into the back of this."

It fit with Earnhardt's strategy, which Letarte said was to ride around for 190 laps and be there for the victory with 10 to go. And to a large degree it worked, with Stewart and Earnhardt often sailing through the field whenever they hooked together. But in such tight quarters, they couldn't always maintain contact. And the poor track position resulting from the flat tire did the rest.

"You did a good job all week, man," Letarte told his driver on the radio after the No. 88 received damage too heavy to continue. "This whole team did."

Earnhardt had hoped for a bit more. "It was wild," he said. "I want to thank all my guys on my team, Hendrick engines, the body men and everybody who worked real hard to get us down here and make us run as good as we did. It was a shame we couldn't get a good finish for them."