It’s the first time in his career that he’ll be looked at as the bad guy. If not for a rained-out finish, Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be the story of the 2009 Daytona 500.
And for all the wrong reasons.
NASCAR’s Super Bowl of racing got off to an ominous start Sunday with the cloud cover at Daytona International Speedway. Rain was expected to be an issue all day, but the drivers couldn’t let that take their focus off the 200-lap marathon in front of them.
On lap eight, the youngest and newest star to the Sprint Cup Series, Joey Logano, fell victim to the first of many DNFs at Daytona. Joe Gibbs Racing had some of the best cars on the racetrack, but their luck was some of the worst.
Junior’s day was riddled with poor pit stops, bad drafting position, and penalties. Hendrick Motorsports' biggest draw was struggling to even stay on the lead lap at times.
The best cars of the day were hard to pick out, but it was clear that the elite ride on the track belonged to Kyle Busch and the No. 18 M&M's Toyota. Busch led more than half of the laps that were run Sunday. His car was in clean air for 88 laps and he looked to be on his way to a first-place finish.
Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet was also running at the front of the pack for most of the day. He fell victim to a tire rub in his right-front tire about halfway through the race and ended up falling to the back of the pack.
The other usual contenders, such as Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, and Tony Stewart, were all running at the front of the pack, but none seemed to have the speed to overtake Busch’s car.
That all changed on lap 124.
During the fifth caution of the day, Junior came in with the rest of the field for a pit stop. On entry, he overshot his pit box and his crew began work on the No. 88 Mountain Dew/National Guard Chevrolet. A NASCAR official made a point of telling his crew that they could not begin work legally until moving into their designated pit box.
The crew could have cared less.
Earnhardt’s tire man pushed the official out of the way as the team made a four-tire change and fuel stop, but Junior was detained for a lap due to the violation. It was just another mistake on a miserable day at Daytona for Tony Eury Jr.’s crew.
After the stop, the mounting frustration finally came to a head on lap 124, as Junior and Brian Vickers were at the front of the pack on a double-file restart. Junior made a move to the inside on Vickers and the Red Bull Toyota made an aggressive block to keep in prime position for the lucky-dog position on the next caution.
Earnhardt Jr. showed signs of the Intimidator after the block.
He clipped the rear left side of Vickers, sending him up the hill in Turn Three. The No. 83 then got loose and started a chain-reaction pileup that would eliminate 10 drivers from the field, including leader Kyle Busch.
Caution was out on the racetrack, but most fans were curious if Junior would need to take caution after the race in the garage area.
After the wreck, Busch was the first driver to comment on the actions of his colleagues.
"Some guys having some bad days and not doing their best out there just made their bad day our bad day," Busch said. "It's just a shame. It's just unfortunate that two guys got together that were a lap down that were fighting over nothing."
Busch is typically a driver that doesn’t hold his tongue when commenting on wrecks that cause him a DNF. However, the 23-year-old was quite passive in his comments Sunday.
Vickers, on the other hand, was quick to point the finger at Junior for causing the wreck.
"I went to block him,” Vickers said. “I beat him to the yellow line and then he just turned us. To wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field is really kind of dangerous. That's my problem with it."
Most other drivers involved in the wreck were not as quick to blame Earnhardt Jr. for the wreck. It would appear that both drivers were at fault. The NASCAR competition committee did not black flag Earnhardt Jr. and he would regain the lead lap on the next caution.
Just one day earlier in the Nationwide race, Jason Leffler made a similar move and did receive a black flag. There will be many who question the decision NASCAR made, thinking it could have been based on Earnhardt Jr.’s notoriety.
Junior’s comments after the race were quite defensive. While he has never been known for his tact in on-the-spot interviews, he made it quite clear what his intentions were with Vickers when FOX’s Dick Berggren spoke with him during the delay:
"Yeah, it was accidental. I don't want to wreck the field. The rain was coming. It was time to try to win the race and I was trying to get back on the lead lap. So I had to run hard. If Vickers could have just held his ground, I had a good run. I was a lapped car anyway and wasn't battling for the lead. But he drove me down into the grass, almost, and I didn't have much control of my car after that."
Earnhardt Jr. was quick to say it was accidental. However, later he deflected some of the blame back onto Vickers.
"He ain't too happy about it, but what the hell, man?" Earnhardt Jr. said. "He was driving like a damn idiot. That's not clever, smart driving. That's ridiculous. It don't look clean to me. I hate I wrecked him and everyone else that got in that wreck, but Brian ain't no saint in the matter."
NASCAR drivers are like MLB managers in the sense that they are slow to forget past transgressions. It may not be next week, or next month, but sometime this season expect Dale Jr. to see retaliation for his driving at Daytona.
Both drivers were at fault in this wreck. Vickers should not have made such an aggressive block with 76 laps left in the race. Junior could have avoided contact with Vickers by checking up and taking his car below the yellow line.
Perhaps they both should abstain from using their sponsors’ products before a race.
Nevertheless, each of them knew that the race could have been stopped at any point due to the rain that was coming in. Perhaps it is time for NASCAR to re-visit their stance on rain cancellations. Races like Daytona and those that make up the Chase deserve to be finished for both the drivers and the fans.
NASCAR is already struggling with sponsorships and fan attendance going into this year. The Daytona 500 didn’t sell out until the night before the green flag was dropped. Starting the season like this could drape a yellow flag over NASCAR and its affiliates' ledgers for the remainder of the season.