By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
All week long, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was pegged as everyone’s odds-on favorite to win the Daytona 500. Earnhardt’s car, dubbed Amelia, had shown so much speed and had shown incredible handling through qualifying, the Can-Am Duel qualifying race and every practice session.
During Sunday’s Daytona 500, Earnhardt started off strong from the third position.
Earnhardt knifed his way past his teammate, Chase Elliott for the lead on lap four. Earnhardt held the point to lead 15 circuits early on in the race, and it honestly looked like he would take over and be the class of the field. But then, Earnhardt was shuffled back into the pack, and he struggled to work his way forward with a mishandling car. Earnhardt wasn’t really ever a threat to win again.
While battling for a top-10 position on lap 170, Earnhardt’s car broke loose coming off of turn four, Earnhardt couldn’t regain control of his racecar, and the 13-time Most Popular Driver slammed hard into the inside wall. It crushed Amelia, and the hearts of Junior Nation. The bid for a third Daytona 500 crown was over.
After climbing from the wreckage, Earnhardt said that his team misjudged how important handling would be in the race at a track that seems to finally be wearing out after being repaved back in 2010.
“It caught me by surprise. I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and boy, it pinned the right front. All the downforce there. We have been working on the balance all day. That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today,” a dejected Earnhardt said. “We’ve had a rocket all week, but it was in single car runs and at the night races, the car has handled great. We gotta do a little more drafting I think there the next time we come back and be ready for the balance and the things they threw at us today. We were starting to move forward and get aggressive and I just lost it.”
Earnhardt finished 36th on the day, which ties his worst-ever finish in ‘The Great American Race’. Earnhardt also finished 36th in this race in 2003. In typical Earnhardt Jr. fashion, he fully owned up to making a mistake that led to his horrible start to the 2016 season.
“I was aggressive trying to side draft guys and move forward. We were making some ground on the leaders a little bit so that was looking pretty good because the outside line really hadn’t been doing anything all day. Just busted my butt there. Driver mistake,” Earnhardt said.
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