DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – One false move cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. a shot at consecutive victories in the Daytona 500.
On a restart with 19 laps remaining, NASCAR’s 12-time most popular driver moved up the track and plummeted through the field. Earnhardt dropped from third to 20th over the next 10 laps.
He clawed up to sixth for a green-white-checkered finish and finished third behind race winner Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick, but it was of little consolation after leading 32 laps.
“I made a real bad decision on that restart,” Earnhardt said. “You can’t afford to do that. I got shuffled back and lost a ton of spots. I had one of the best cars out there, which gave me a lot of confidence to keep digging.
“It’s real disappointing because the Nationwide team gave me the best car and should have won the race. Just real disappointed I didn’t do everything I needed to do.”
Earnhardt said he made the move because he was trying to back up and tuck in behind Jimmie Johnson (who was leading in the outside lane), but he misjudged the distance and found his No. 88 Chevrolet stranded without drafting help.
“I should have stayed on the bottom, been a little more patient,” Earnhardt said. “I thought I had a good opportunity, and it just didn’t work out.”
The 2014 Daytona 500 winner was trying to become the first back-to-back winner of the season opener since Sterling Marlin in 1994-95. He was able to look at the bright side afterward, peppering his postrace interviews with well-wishes for Kyle Busch (who remained hospitalized in nearby Halifax-Health Medical Center after suffering a compound fracture of his right leg in a Saturday crash).
“Definitely glad we came home safe,” he said. “Definitely thinking about Kyle over there and … hoping he’s well. We’ve been tough competitors, not always got along, but you hate seeing any of your comrades go through that. Hope he’s doing OK.”
It was a solid Speedweeks debut, too, for crew chief Greg Ives, who guided Earnhardt to a win in one of last Thursday’s qualifying races. Ives takes over for former crew chief Steve Letarte, who took Earnhardt to the Chase for the Sprint Cup in four straight seasons before leaving for an analyst job with NBC Sports.
“I’ve got a great team and feel like Greg’s going to be awesome and we’ll have more opportunities this year,” Earnhardt said.