Tampa Bay Sports Day

NASCAR Notebook: Despite Crash, Earnhardt Encouraged

KURT BUSCH CELEBRATES IN VICTORY LANE AFTER WINNING THE 59TH ANNUAL DAYTONA 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Returning to action from a concussion that sidelined him for the second half of the 2016 season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading Sunday’s Daytona 500 at the halfway point, having passed Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for the top spot on lap 97 of 200.

But both Earnhardt and Johnson were off-cycle on pit stops, and a trip to pit road was imminent. What Earnhardt needed was a caution. What Earnhardt didn’t need was to be part of the wreck that caused the yellow.

On Lap 105, Earnhardt was trailing a trio of Toyotas into Turn 3 when Kyle Busch spun as his right rear tire deflated. Earnhardt tried to steer around the wreck but clipped the rear of Busch’s Toyota, severely damaging the right front suspension of Earnhardt’s Chevrolet.

Earnhardt took the car to the garage and fell out of the race in 37th place, a disappointing end to a strong week that saw him qualify on the outside of the front row for the Great American Race and finish fifth in his Can-Am Duel on Thursday.

“I don’t know what happened there with the No. 18 (Busch),” Earnhardt said of the crash that knocked him out of the race. “He just got turned around. I tried to get the wheel turned and get down the race track, but I lifted off the gas to miss it, and got on the splitter a little bit, and the car went straight. We jumped him, and got in the wall a little bit.

“Wasn’t too hard of a hit. We thought we could get the car fixed and get back out there and see what we could do with the rest of the day and make up some spots maybe. But there was just too much damage. The radiator is pushed back. The toe is all messed up. The front suspension is knocked around pretty bad, so the upper A-frame is laid over on the motor. We just can’t drive it like that.”

The wreck, however, didn’t diminish the positive feelings Earnhardt takes away from Daytona.

“I really enjoyed the whole week,” he said. “We had a lot of fun. Everybody was looking forward to getting back to the race track. It meant a lot to me. And I’m just sorry we weren’t able to deliver a better result today for all our fans and everybody that was looking forward to today. We had a great car. At least we went out leading the race.

“Luckily, the hit wasn’t that hard, and we’ll be able to get to Atlanta and compete again. It’s going to be a fun season, and we’ve got pretty high spirits. This was not the result we wanted today, but like I said, it’s been a great week.”

Blaney has mixed feelings about runner-up finish

Given his running position with two laps left in Sunday’s Daytona 500, Ryan Blaney was pleasantly surprised with his runner-up finish in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ most prestigious race.

On the other hand, there was a tinge of disappointment at coming so close to a victory and falling .228 seconds short.

“We all got single-file with 15 (laps) to go, something like that,” Blaney said. “I tried to make a move with 10 to go to see what would happen. No one really went with me. The 22 (Joey Logano) tried too. It really wasn’t happening. I was kind of worried it was just going to end that way.

“Luckily, I got Joey behind me there down the frontstretch, and we were able to lay back to him and get a huge run into (Turn) 1. At the same moment, the 41 (race winner Kurt Busch) went to go pass the 42 (Kyle Larson), and it kept my run going, all the way up to second.”

But second was also where the run stopped.

“It was a good way to start off the year,” Blaney said. “Stinks to be so close. But I think that’s good momentum for our team, to be good at the beginning of the day, get some damage and be able to rally for a good finish.”

Waltrip finishes eighth in final Daytona 500
Michael Waltrip didn’t have the fastest car in Sunday’s Daytona 500, but he managed to avoid the prolific multicar wrecks that peppered the first 150 laps of the race.

And when he took the checkered flag, Waltrip was eighth in his 30th and final trip around Daytona International Speedway in NASCAR’s most important race.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a great memory to have a top 10,” Waltrip said. “I had so many times I was in the middle of a crash and just missed it. So you do a good job, and you get lucky–both. At the end, I just lost the draft, and that’s unfortunate, because I was able to weave my way past people.

“I had a really, really good handling car. I’m thankful that I survived, and I’m thankful for being able to run up front, and I’m happy about the finish. I’m ready for it to be my last one, so it’s going to be a good one to remember it by.

(By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service)