Accident erases potential storybook comeback for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
For a few fleeting moments at Daytona International Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed poised to write a miraculous ending to the story almost everyone tuned in to Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola wanted to read.
In what was to be Earnhardt's final ride at Daytona as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series driver, Earnhardt started from the pole but lost the lead to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott on the first lap.
But NASCAR's most popular driver brought the crowd to life on Lap 36
when he passed Brad Keselowski for the lead with a push from Ryan Blaney. Earnhardt's stint at the front of the field was short-lived, as Keselowski got the top spot back one circuit later and went on to win the first 40-lap stage.
On Lap 52, heading into Turn 1 at 190 miles per hour, Earnhardt felt his right front tire losing air, but he was trapped in the outside lane and couldn't break out of line. Unavoidable contact from Paul Menard's Chevrolet sent Earnhardt's Chevy into the outside wall, causing him to lose two laps as he brought the car to pit road for repairs.
"We brushed the wall a couple of laps earlier, and I thought everything was OK," Earnhardt said. "I came through the tri-oval and I had a right front going down, and it was trying to spin out, so I was trying to lift, but there was really nothing I could do, because there were so many guys behind me. We got into (Turn) 1 and hit the wall."
But Earnhardt persevered, and with two "lucky dogs" (as the highest-scored lapped car), he returned to the lead lap under caution on Lap 90 of a scheduled 160. After restarting 31st on Lap 95, he had driven up to 17th place two laps later.
Thenceforth, Earnhardt ran as high as sixth and was holding seventh when Kevin Harvick blew a tire and turned in front of him. The result wreck knocked both Earnhardt and Harvick out of the race, as well as Keselowski.
But for a brief time, Earnhardt had visions of taking the car to Victory Lane at Daytona one last time.
"Oh yes, as soon as we got our lap back, I knew anything was possible," Earnhardt said. "We were just kind of drafting right back up there and I think the #4 (Harvick) got a flat. I had nowhere to go, but it was fun. We had a pretty strong car."
The early exit brought to an end a hectic week, one in which Earnhardt was almost embarrassed by the accolades he received.
"I just didn't expect all that attention all week," he said. "My phone buzzing all day long with social media going crazy. Everybody talking about this being my last Daytona race. I hope every weekend isn't like this, as far as that goes.
"The attention and the reaction from the fans makes me feel great. Hopefully, we're able to turn that around and back on them for the rest of the season and thank them for all they've done."
A CLOSE CALL FOR RESTRICTOR-PLATE MAVEN DAVID RAGAN
Both of David Ragan's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series victories have come at restrictor-plate tracks, and in Saturday's Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, he was two laps away from a third win.
Driving the #38 Front Row Motorsports Ford, Ragan led the field to an overtime restart on lap 162, but as the cars approached Turn 3, Ragan realized too late that eventual race winner Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had a strong run to the inside.
Stenhouse made the pass and held on for the victory, as Ragan fell back to sixth at the finish.
"I'm certainly proud of our effort tonight," Ragan said. "Our Shriners Hospital for Children Ford was fast. We had a great day on pit road. Our car was fast, and it drove really good. I give us an 'A' for the night. I missed my mark a bit coming to the white (overtime) line.
"I zigged when I should have zagged. It's tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run. If I couldn't win, I'm glad another Ford is in Victory Lane. Ricky's a good guy and I'm proud for that team. I'm just disappointed that I couldn't close the deal."
MENARD PERSEVERES FOR THIRD-PLACE FINISH
When Paul Menard clipped the outside wall early in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway, his prospects for victory seemed remote.
But Menard worked his way steadily toward the front after the end of the second stage, got a strong push from race runner-up Clint Bowyer in the two-lap overtime and came home third.
No, he didn't join Richard Childress teammates Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon among this season's race winners, but Menard's #27 Chevrolet showed excellent speed, as did most of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series cars powered by Earnhardt Childress Racing engines.
"On Thursday when we practiced, I knew that we had a really good-handling car," Menard said. "Sucked up pretty good in the draft, but I knew it was going to handle well tonight, and it did. We wanted to race hard all night long, but I forget who wrecked up in Turn 1 and 2, but we got in the wall pretty hard and had to work on some damage so that put us back right at the end of the first stage and couldn't go anywhere.
"So we kind of bailed out of the stages and there was a bunch of attrition, obviously, and we kind of passed some cars that way, but got some really big runs towards the end and made up a lot of ground, and Bowyer pushed the hell out of me the last lap.
"I just couldn't get a run off Turn 4 coming to the checkered. I guess I used it all the lap before. All in all, really good weekend for us, for RCR, for ECR. We had a lot of RCR race cars up front with ECR horsepower, so a lot of speed this weekend. We definitely had a shot - just couldn't get that run off Turn 4."
--- By Reid Spencer / NASCAR Wire Service ---