Commentary

It was one rough day for Junior

Sometimes you're the hero and sometimes you're the goat. Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't have the kind of day he had hoped, with two pit-road mistakes and a wreck taking him out of contention, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 15, 2009, 10:22 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- When things go bad, somebody always gets the blame.

No. 1 in the blame game Sunday for the shortened Daytona 500 was Dale Earnhardt Jr., fairly or unfairly.

Ask Brian Vickers and Kyle Busch. Neither man has any doubts about it after their race ended in the biggest wreck of the day.

[+] EnlargeDale Earnhardt Jr.
AP Photo/John RaouxIt proved to be a long Sunday for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

"It's pretty sad to wreck somebody intentionally like that in front of the entire field," Vickers said of Earnhardt. "It's really kind of dangerous."

"One guy that had problems on pit road all day [Earnhardt] made his problems our problem," Busch said.

Who's really to blame for the battered sheet metal 26 laps before rain ended things? That's up for debate, depending on your perspective.

"What the hell, man. He was driving like a damn idiot," Earnhardt said of Vickers. "He hit me so hard he almost knocked me in the grass. That's not clean driving. It don't look clean to me."

But even Earnhardt says he only has himself to blame for making pit road look like an ice-covered obstacle course on two stops before the controversial incident with Vickers.

His pit-road blunders led to the big crash of the race. Vickers and Earnhardt were the first two cars a lap down on a restart when the collision happened on Lap 124.

Vickers was in front of Earnhardt on the inside line. Earnhardt started to make a move to the left to get by when Vickers quickly went for the block and forced Earnhardt below the double yellow line.

When Earnhardt moved back to the right to get off the apron, he clipped the left-rear quarter panel of Vickers.

The huge wreck was on. Ten cars were involved when Vickers shot up the track sideways. The big victim was Busch, who had the best car in the field and led 88 laps in the No. 18 Toyota.

"Kyle was good enough to win, sure," Earnhardt said. "I hate I wrecked him and everyone else, but Brian ain't no saint in the matter either."

Vickers, who finished 39th in the No. 83 Toyota, believed the whole thing could have been avoided.

"We're racing for lucky dog [a free lap back] and my goal was to keep Junior behind me," Vickers said. "Then he just turned us. He came back up and hooked me in the left rear.

"Typically NASCAR penalizes someone for that. The 38 [Jason Leffler] was penalized five laps for that yesterday [in the Nationwide race]."

NASCAR officials said no penalty was assessed to Earnhardt because they didn't feel the incident was intentional.

"I got a great run on [Vickers], trying to get my lap back on the back straightaway,'' Earnhardt said. "I kind of eased over there. I didn't do it at the last minute. He knew I was coming. But he dove to the inside like I wasn't even there."

Vickers felt Earnhardt was racing too hard for the situation.

"How the hell was I racing hard?" Earnhardt asked. "The guy that made the mistake is the guy that drove us in the grass.

"I didn't have any control of my car after that. I was just trying to get back on the racetrack and I hit him in the quarter panel and spun him out.

"I didn't really have time to judge whether I was going to clear him or not. If he had just held his ground we would have been all right."

Earnhardt felt Vickers shouldn't have blocked his momentum.

"All the blocking and carrying on, that's just ridiculous," Earnhardt said. "You can't race below the yellow line.

"At one point I was leading the race and the 14 [Tony Stewart] and the 20 [Joey Logano] had a run on me. What did I do? I let them guys go by me. If somebody's got a run on you there ain't much you can do about it."

Earnhardt said he couldn't slow down to avoid hitting Vickers.

"Who's behind me?" he asked. "What happens if I lift to try to pull up in front of somebody and get turned into the fence?"

Earnhardt managed to keep racing after the wreck, only suffering minor damage. Another caution enabled Earnhardt to get his lap back and he was 27th when the rain brought out the red flag.

"I'm in good shape man," Earnhardt said when he got out of his car. "My car is really good. It's been fast all day. If we get this thing going again I'll drive her up to the front."

Didn't happen. NASCAR called the race only 15 minutes after the red flag, apparently believing the all-green radar screen wouldn't allow a restart. Matt Kenseth was the winner.

That's when the what-ifs started for Earnhardt.

What if he hadn't missed his pit box early in the race? Earnhardt had to come back around to pit, putting him at the back of the field (35th) for the restart on Lap 60.

"That was my mistake," he said. "I just didn't see the 88 sign. I didn't know exactly where I was and I blew it."

And what if he had pitted outside his box on Lap 120, four laps before the wreck? His right-side tires were barely over the line. The No. 88 team was flagged by an official and Earnhardt was held for one lap.

"A lap for that is pretty ridiculous in my opinion," Earnhardt said. "The tail end of the longest line I could understand. I was only an inch over the line. Come on. What's the big gain that they need to take a lap from us?"

Earnhardt had plenty of questions. No answers would suffice. All that was left to ponder was who should get the blame.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter