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Dale Jr.: 'I didn't check' steering wheel at 'Dega

RELATED: Junior explains steering wheel mistake  

MOORESVILLE -- Barely 50 laps had been completed when Dale Earnhardt Jr., his team and his No. 88 Chevrolet were found in the garage Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

Repairs to fix the damaged entry, which had unexpectedly swung around and collected Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, took time.

Rain was threatening to shorten the 188-lap GEICO 500, which was nearing the halfway point when the car was deemed ready to return to action.

But in a rush to get back out on the track and avoid a potential DNF (Did Not Finish), the series' Most Popular driver didn't notice that his steering wheel was not fully engaged as he rolled back out onto the 2.66-mile track.

Until it came off in his hands.

"I put the wheel on and never grabbed the coupler and made sure it was locked," Earnhardt said Tuesday. "… You're out of your element because you've crashed, you're in the garage, they're fixing the car, it's starting to rain, the caution's coming out, you're going to climb back in."

Before the race went back green, crew chief Greg Ives asked his driver to check his safety belts and steering wheel. When Earnhardt pulled back on the wheel, it came off the column.

Earnhardt quickly grabbed the column to momentarily steer the car before reattaching the steering wheel.

"I was out of my element," he said. "Just scrambling, trying to get going and I didn't check it. We always put the wheel on and pull it and I didn't do it."

RELATED: What grade did Junior get for the day?

While his chances at victory were non-existent, to be still running whenever the race ended was important.

"There are these little things that people don't think about that are a source of pride for drivers, teams, crew chiefs," Earnhardt said. "You don't want a DNF. Even if that means get back out and run the last lap. That counts; you finished. …

"Anytime you crash a car, you load it up and you know you might, could have fixed it, it's a feeling you just can't get over. Because you didn't do everything you could have. And if you take that home with you, it's just an empty feeling.

"You go there to run all the laps. When you get kicked and beat down and knocked off the top or you're having a bad day … the best thing you can do to go home with a clear conscience is to work as hard as you can to do everything you can before the checkered flag. You run every lap you can run, even if it's pointless."

This time, it was just that as the Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing driver Carl Edwards collected Earnhardt just a short time after his return.

"Literally, it was pointless for us to be back out there," Earnhardt said. "We might have gotten one point.

"That's what you do. You get out there and you fix it. You've got all that crash-cart (equipment) there for a reason. You make your guys go through the process of fixing the car because next time they fix it, they might do it 15 minutes quicker because they find some shortcuts and that might be important in the Chase."

The car, now-famously nicknamed "Amelia" by Earnhardt won't be making any more starts. The combination of damage from the two incidents was too severe.

Instead, it'll eventually be added to Earnhardt's "graveyard" of crashed vehicles on his private property.

"I'll put it in the dirt, in the woods, and let the weeds take it," he said. "We'll build a new one and it will be good at Daytona.

"I hate that that car ran those two races and had those two awful finishes because it did have such a good 2015. We should have parked it and built a new one and said that's the end of the deal with that one."

Earnhardt drove the car to victory last season at both Daytona (in July) and Talladega (in May), and finished second (at Talladega in fall Chase race) and third (Daytona 500) in '15 as well.

RELATED: Edwards finishes off Junior's bad day

This year, he crashed at Daytona and the car was repaired in time for Talladega. But there'll be no more fixing for this one.

"We need to build a new car and we probably should have done that in the offseason," he said. "We got attached to this thing and really liked what it did last year. We were hoping we could keep having success with it; it was still a pretty good car."

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