Earnhardt finds solace after late-race incidents
Top-10 run spoiled with speeding penalty, cutting down Gordon's tire
By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
March 19, 2012 10:15 AM, EDT
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- By his own admission, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is going to have to do some damage control this week.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver was racing for position with teammate Jeff Gordon on Lap 359 of Sunday's Sprint Cup event at Bristol Motor Speedway when he made the slightest contact with the No. 24 car. But it was evidently enough for the exhaust pipes peeking out from beneath his vehicle to cut down Gordon's left-rear tire, and send the four-time champion spinning up into the outside wall.
I'm going to have to do some damage control this week. I know Jeff understands what was going on out there, but his boys work real hard on their car, and they had a good run going.
-- DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Gordon, who had one of the stronger cars in the early-going, lost dozens of laps for repairs and finished 35th. In perhaps a bit of cosmic retribution, Earnhardt was in line for a good finish until he was penalized for being too fast on pit road during the afternoon's final round of stops, and wound up 15th.
"I'm upset that I screwed myself on pit road speeding there. I'm pretty upset about that," Earnhardt said. "Otherwise, I feel bad about running into Jeff's car, and I had a good day other than that. I had a good time. Long green-flag run, man. That put us all to the test. I was watching for somebody to fall out of the seat. I don't know who did and who didn't, but I was watching for a couple of them to pull over."
Earnhardt ran in the top 10 for most of the day, and almost certainly would have finished there if not for the late penalty. Gordon spent much of Sunday before the accident in the top five, and seemed one of the contenders for the victory until he and Earnhardt raced side-by-side late in the race. The contact between the two cars as they came off a corner was almost unnoticeable, but it was just enough -- and the cars were aligned just so -- for the edge of the exhaust pipes on the No. 88 to cut down a tire on the No. 24.
"I think we bumped more than we should have is the way it looks like," said Gordon, who fell six spots in points to 23rd. "We definitely didn't hit in the right location, because I think the tailpipe or something just cut the left-rear immediately. We didn't hit that hard. We were a little bit too tight and he was pretty good on the restart there, and we were racing hard. I know that it wasn't intentional, but it certainly ruined our day. ... There were times we had the best car out there and I think we could have got back to that before this thing was over."
After the incident, Earnhardt immediately radioed his crew an apology to be sent to Gordon. He said following the race that he would sit down with his teammate this week to ensure everything is fine between them. "I'm going to have to do some damage control this week. I know Jeff understands what was going on out there, but his boys work real hard on their car, and they had a good run going. They had a potential win, or good finish going too, and they deserve it," Earnhardt said.
"We were racing really hard. It was fun," he added. "If there is a track where you can lean on each other a little bit, then this ought to be the place. We just barely rubbed down the back straightaway."
If anything, the speeding penalty seemed to eat at Earnhardt more, and with good reason. Earnhardt was sixth when Tony Stewart bounced off the wall to bring out the event's final yellow, but has to go to the rear of the lead lap after his vehicle was ticketed for speeding. NASCAR added two additional timing lines to each side of Bristol's split pit road this weekend, in reaction to an August race when some drivers took advantage of the gaps between the timed areas by speeding between them.
"I was told I was speeding on the back, but if anywhere, I was speeding on the front," Earnhardt said. "I don't know. This place is probably hard to tell exactly what is happening. I don't really trust those timing lines too much. If they say so, I guess we were speeding. It's a difficult way to give up a good finish. We ran hard. We worked hard all day."
Post-Race Reactions: Earnhardt, others weigh in on Bristol race
Earnhardt fell two positions to sixth in points with the finish, but took solace in an afternoon where his No. 88 car ran with the leaders almost the entire race. His effort at Bristol came one week after he led 70 laps at Las Vegas before finishing 10th.
"We're showing all the signs of any of these other guys capable of running up front and maybe winning us a race or two this year," Earnhardt said. "We're going to keep it up. I'm going to take all the positives I can out of this one. We ran good. We didn't run good last year. We struggled and just kind of limped around and made something out of nothing. [Sunday] we ran good, and I feel good about that."
Watch highlights from the Food City 500: