Daytona experience leaves Earnhardt in foul mood

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press / July 4, 2011

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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 kind of 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 said, fuming. “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 breathtaking 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 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. “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 in the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday. 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.

But that wasn’t even what ruined Earnhardt’s race. It came on the final two-lap sprint, when he said Jamie McMurray drove into his side and turned him.

Earnhardt is 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.’’