DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) – Dale Earnhardt Jr. scraped the wall in a race billed as his final Cup Series start at Daytona International Speedway on Saturday night.
NASCAR’s most popular driver had a flat right rear tire as he entered a turn, started to slow and then brushed the wall and flattened the right front tire.
He made his way to pit row, but lost two laps while getting repairs. The damage likely will end Earnhardt’s chances of picking up his 18th career victory at the famed speedway.
Earnhardt was the pole-sitter and overwhelming favorite to win the race. He clearly had one of the fastest cars in the field and spent much of the first two stages up front.
Several other top contenders found trouble, too.
Points leader Kyle Larson and second-place Martin Truex Jr. were involved in a 10-car accident on Lap 72 that knocked out Truex and Joey Logano. Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Kurt Busch and Michael McDowell also were involved in the wreck that Kyle Busch started when he got sideways and started to spin in tight pack racing.
“Wrong place at the wrong time again for us,” Logano said. “It’s superspeedway racing. Sometimes you’re on the good side of it, sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it. That was the bad one.”
Earnhardt’s troubles earlier seemingly silenced the stadium.
Earnhardt announced in April that this would be his final full-time season in NASCAR’s top series. He plans to drive a handful of races in the second-tier Xfinity Series, but has not committed to running at Daytona again.
So the track billed this race as his Daytona finale , even painting a No. 88 logo on the infield grass and dubbing the entire weekend “Daletona.” Track officials also presented Junior with a painting featuring three of his most memorable wins at the superspeedway: His July 2001 victory that came 4 1/2 months after his father’s fatal crash in the Daytona 500; his July 2010 win in the second-tier series in which he drove a No. 3 Chevrolet with a throwback paint scheme; and his February 2014 win in “The Great American Race.”
Earnhardt told NBC broadcasters he was a little overwhelmed with all the attention on pit road before the race.
Fans crowded around his Chevrolet, snapping pictures and screaming well wishes to NASCAR’s favorite son.
Earnhardt acknowledged earlier in the week that winning at Daytona, a venue that has delivered personal tragedy and professional triumph, was his best last chance to make the playoffs. He is winless this season and ranks 22nd in points, well out of the postseason picture.
“We are running out of time, and I am aware of that,” Earnhardt said. “Yeah, this is probably our best shot to win, but we can win at other race tracks. We’ve got that ability to do that. It’s been a very frustrating, tough year statistically.”
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