Three-car draft derails Dale Earnhardt Jr.

February, 16, 2011

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- I was high above Daytona International Speedway on the spotter's tower when Brett Griffin, directing Richard Childress Racing driver Jeff Burton around the 2.5-mile track, pointed toward Turn 3.

"This is why a three-car draft won't work," Griffin said Wednesday afternoon.

The next thing I knew, Daytona 500 pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the wall, his primary car destroyed, putting him in a backup car and forcing him to start Thursday's qualifying race and Sunday's showcase event from the back.

And he'll start from the back Sunday even if he wins the qualifying race.

That's a silly enough rule under this qualifying format. But equally silly was the crash that put Earnhardt in this position.

It never should have happened.

Let's go back to the spotter's tower, where Griffin was explaining why the three-car draft wouldn't work before the crash occurred.

"The middle car creates an accordion effect so the forward momentum isn't as consistent as it is with two cars," he said.

In other words, it's not as fast.

Here's what happened: Robby Gordon, David Gilliland and Michael Waltrip were experimenting with a three-car draft around the bottom of the track going into Turn 3. Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt were in a two-car draft closing fast, so they committed to the high line.

But by the time Johnson and Earnhardt got to Turn 4, the three-car pack had moved up, pinching them. Johnson checked up and got sideways but saved it. Earnhardt got sideways, and Martin Truex Jr., in a two-car draft with Brian Vickers, plowed into NASCAR's most popular driver.

"Closing speed is high," said Johnson, who avoided damage to his car. "We are all able to look in the mirrors and pay attention to what is going on. That was so avoidable. That didn't need to happen."

Many drivers knew three-car drafts wouldn't work before practice. Denny Hamlin had explained earlier in the day how crazy it was to try.

Apparently, Gordon, Gilliland and Waltrip didn't get the memo.

But what we learned is that the spotter's role is more important than ever. Had Gordon, Gilliland and Waltrip had proper information to know Johnson and Earnhardt were coming fast, they might have held their line low.

"It's a new game," Johnson said. "It seems to me it was an innocent thing. [But] you can't start on the bottom of the track and find yourself on the top in the middle of the corners."

The shame of all this is the pole sitter, regardless of his last name, pays the price. Because Earnhardt officially had qualified for the 500 on Sunday, NASCAR had no choice but to put him in the back. The same would have been true had Jeff Gordon, on the outside front row, crashed.

The other cars in the wreck aren't penalized so severely for going to backups because they haven't officially qualified for the 500. They'll earn their positions based on how they finish in the qualifying races. Truex hypothetically could start from the pole position if he wins his qualifying race to earn the third spot, which will move to No. 1.

Meanwhile, two-car tandems remain the story of Speedweeks. All the rule changes NASCAR made, from a smaller plate to reducing the front grill opening to mandating a lower radiator pressure, makes the cars heat up in two to three laps instead of 15 to 25.

That could change as the weather heats up the next few days, but there are no guarantees.

So as long as drivers can go two to three laps without overheating, the two-car tandem will remain because it remains about 20 mph faster than a pack. Johnson said he and Earnhardt were going around 204 mph at the time of their wreck.

Or much faster than the three-car pack, as Griffin was about to explain when disaster struck Earnhardt.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?