DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. made it clear he’s no fan of the current style of restrictor plate racing before he even arrived at Daytona International Speedway.
“I’m not looking forward to going to Daytona, not with the way the drafting is there,” he said a week before Saturday night’s race.
“It’s really weird and kinda wrong on some levels to race that way,” he said the day the track opened.
But if there was any doubt, he ended it after a frustrating 19th-place finish that had his passionate army of fans accusing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson of sabotaging Earnhardt’s chance to win.
“I am really ticked off. It was a foolish … race. I don’t know what to tell you,” he fumed. “I don’t like this kind of racing and you know it.”
Earnhardt didn’t appear to be “ticked off” at Johnson, the teammate he partnered with for the second consecutive plate race. He had pushed Johnson to the win at Talladega in April, and Johnson said all week he was willing to return the favor at Daytona.
There once was a time when Earnhardt didn’t need help to win at Daytona, when he could just slice his way to the front and hold off a train of traffic in the closing laps. That’s how he did it 10 years ago, on his first visit to the track following his father’s fatal accident in the 2001 Daytona 500. And that’s how he did it 17 months ago, when he charged from 10th to second in the breath-taking final two laps of the season-opener.
But the racing has changed dramatically since then, and drivers now need to create a two-car hookup to get around Daytona. They use one spotter, with the lead driver taking traffic signals, guiding the trailing driver, who is stuck in a perpetual blind spot as he’s glued to the rear bumper.
The tandem racing debuted at the start of the season, was elevated to a more sophisticated level at Talladega, and led almost every driver to pick a partner and devise a strategy even before they got to Daytona.
“I’d rather have control of my own destiny and be able to go out there and race and just do my own work and worry about my own self,” Earnhardt said on Thursday. “Been growing up all these years racin’ for No. 1, lookin’ out for No. 1, doing my job. This is what I need to do, I need to do this to get up through the pack. This is how my car drives. Now you are doing it so different. Your thought process and everything you think about during the race is nothing near that.
“It is just different and weird.”
Maybe Earnhardt would have felt differently had the outcome been a little better Saturday night. But as winner David Ragan made his move toward the front with teammate Matt Kenseth, the Earnhardt-Johnson duo found itself mired in traffic.
Then they were separated when Johnson ducked onto pit road, but Earnhardt stayed on the track. It was obviously botched communications that sunk their chances at the win.
“I’m driving my car, do what I’m told,” Earnhardt said. “They decided to do something different. I can’t run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn race car. I’m just doing what I’m told out there. I don’t know how that affected us, if it did at all. It probably didn’t.”
Johnson, apparently getting blasted on Twitter from angry JR Nation fans, posted on his page immediately after the race that he “didn’t leave Jr hanging” and crew chiefs Steve Letarte and Chad Knaus make the decisions.
“You people are crazy,” he wrote on Twitter. “When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve and Chad sort out the details.”
But that wasn’t even what ruined Earnhardt’s race. It came later, on the final two-lap sprint, when he said Jamie McMurray drove into the side of his Chevrolet and turned him.
“I had it saved, and then he came on and got him another shot,” Earnhardt said. “Brought the KO. punch the second time and spun us around.”
The style of racing won’t change before NASCAR goes to Talladega in October, when drivers, maybe even Earnhardt, will be competing for the Sprint Cup championship. Each move will be critical, and every driver will be dependent on someone else.
It’s not comfortable for Earnhardt, and he doesn’t think it’s suitable. He’s the most outspoken driver about the current state of plate racing, but he’s definitely not alone.
“It’s so hard to see how many hours these (crew) guys put into these cars, to have it torn up in the blink of an eye like that,” Johnson said. “But it is what it is and we’ll just go on to the next one.”
NOTEBOOK: Daytona 500 champion Trevor Bayne was hoping for a repeat trip to Victory Lane at Daytona. Instead, he got an early exit. Bayne wrecked on the fifth lap of Saturday’s race and finished 40th, ending his return to Sprint Cup competition way sooner than he hoped. “It’s not fun, I can promise you,” Bayne said. “It takes about a half second and you say, ‘Oh, here it goes,’ because you get sideways and you know the point of correction. … I just hate that it was us. It’s gonna happen again tonight, I’m sure, but it’s just really unfortunate for us. I wanted to back up what we did here in February, obviously, but we aren’t gonna get the chance to do that.” Bayne was running in tandem with Brad Keselowski, but Keselowski turned Bayne around when he seemingly started pushing too close to the left rear. “I don’t know if I turned down more getting in (turn one) or if he kind of came up across our bumper,” Bayne said. “Either way, our bumpers caught wrong and it sent us spinning.” Bayne’s season has been a whirlwind. He became the youngest Daytona 500 winner in February, but he failed to capitalize on his surprise victory. He soon found himself in the Mayo Clinic being treated for what he now believes was Lyme disease. After taking several weeks off, Bayne returned for the Nationwide race at Chicagoland but felt run down. He was hoping to find more normalcy at Daytona, but ended up with a short stint behind the wheel. “I can’t explain what I’ve been through this year,” Bayne said. “It’s tough at times and it’s good at times, but I just know that I’ve got really good people behind me. … So that gives me confidence. If I didn’t have that and I didn’t have my faith and everything else, right now that would be a pretty bad blow, I can promise you that.”