By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
At a track where he had triumphed 17 times over the course of his career, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. came into Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona looking to put some of his restrictor plate magic to good use and try to win one more time on the 2.5-mile track, but the stars just didn’t align for Earnhardt as two crashes would relegate him to a 32nd place finish.
After two straight top-10 finishes in the races leading into Daytona, followed up by a pole run on Friday afternoon, Earnhardt and his No. 88 team were full of confidence that Saturday night could finally be the night they put their bad luck from this season behind them and conquer Daytona in what should be his final race at the track as a full-time driver in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.
Stage 1 went off without a hitch for Earnhardt as stayed right up near the front of the field throughout the duration, leading one lap and finishing the stage in second place behind Brad Keselowski.
However, Stage 2 would be a complete 180 from the first stage as he had a tire going down halfway through the 40-lap segment and got into the outside wall in Turn 1, causing damage to his car and forcing him to pit road. No caution was thrown for the contact with the wall and Earnhardt would lose two laps in the process of getting the damage fixed before rejoining the field. When the green and checkered flag flew at the end of Stage 2, Earnhardt would be 31st on the leaderboard, having got one of his laps back.
By lap 90, Earnhardt worked his way back onto the lead lap after getting the free pass and started to make his charge back through the field, cracking the top 10 shortly thereafter and giving Junior Nation some hope that a win might still be possible despite all that had happened earlier in the race.
“As soon as we got our lap back, I knew anything was possible,” said Earnhardt. “We were just kind of drafting right back up there and I think the No, 4 (Kevin Harvick) got a flat. I had nowhere to go, but it was fun. We had a pretty strong car. We had some gremlins in there; I’m not sure what was going on with that, but we had the toe-in messed up.
“That first deal we brushed the wall a couple of laps earlier and I thought everything was okay. I came through the tri-oval and I had a right front going down and it was trying to spin out, so I was trying to lift, but there was really nothing I could do because there were so many guys behind me. We got into (turn) one and hit the wall. But the guys worked on the car; we got our laps back and was about to have some more fun – get back up in there and mix it up.”
“It’s been a wild night. I didn’t anticipate this much action and this much torn up sheet metal. There is still a lot of racing left.”
But it was not to be as Kevin Harvick cut a tire down right in front of Earnhardt on lap 105, leaving him nowhere to go as he was collected in the multi-car melee. This time the damage was too severe and Earnhardt was forced to take his car to the garage with his night reaching a premature end.
“The 4 car had a flat and just didn’t have anywhere to go. But we had kind of worked our way back up there after having a little trouble with a flat tire earlier in the race. We got our laps back and I thought things were going to work out to give us an opportunity to give us a run at the end for the checkers. The 4 car turned around there, I think he had a flat tire or something there. I just don’t know where I could have gone or if I could have done anything different.”
After getting checked and released from the Infield Care Center, Earnhardt was disappointed in how the race had ended for him, especially after making it all the way back to where they did after the early race damage.
“I wish we had had a good finish tonight if not a win. We were working up in there and having a good time and being aggressive and wearing out the sides of that race car. It just wasn’t to be,” said Earnhardt.
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