By Reid Spencer
Sporting News NASCAR Wire Service
(February 16, 2011)
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a bad feeling about Wednesday's NASCAR Sprint Cup practice session.
As it turned out, he had every reason to be worried.
A wreck in practice on the frontstretch at Daytona International Speedway cost Earnhardt the top starting spot for Sunday's Daytona 500.
Because Earnhardt, who had won the pole for the Cup season opener, went to a backup car after severely damaging his No. 88 Chevrolet in a collision with the No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr., he will start from the rear in his Gatorade Duel 150-mile qualifying race Thursday as well as in the 500.
Earnhardt was pushing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson around the 2.5-mile superspeedway when the two drivers closed rapidly on a pack of cars ahead of them. Earnhardt and Johnson slowed, only to be hit and spun by Truex, who was being pushed by Brian Vickers.
"We were coming around (Turns) 3 and 4, and some of the guys on the inside moved up into the top lane, or toward the top lane, and me and Jimmie were checked up, because we didn't know if they were coming into our lane," Earnhardt explained after the wreck. "We got run over from behind. Just a tough deal—the same old stuff that always kind of happens here.
"They just moved up in front of us, and we lifted, and the guys behind us didn't know what was going on."
Truex's version of events was almost identical.
"I was working with Brian Vickers there—another Toyota," said Truex, who also will go to a backup car for the 500 and will start from the rear in his Duel (but not the 500, because he had not yet earned a specific starting position for the race). We were just kind of going back and forth there with the 48 (Johnson) and the 88 and us two.
"We came up on some slower cars, and it looked like they just came up in front of the 48 and the 88. When they checked up, I checked up, and I was being pushed. The guy behind you can't see what's going on. When I talked to Brian (after the accident), he had no idea they were even checking up."
For Earnhardt, the euphoria of Sunday's pole-winning run turned sour, as he thought it might.
"We've got a pole-sitting racecar—don't need practice," Earnhardt said tersely. "I had a fast car, and I didn't want to practice it.
"We've got plenty of racecars, and I ain't worried about how fast we'll be or whether we'll be as good. We'll be fine. But it never feels good tearing them up. I'm just disappointed in myself. I didn't feel good about getting out there and practicing and didn't think I needed to be out there practicing.
"I just had a bad feeling about it. And we come running up on some guys that didn't have their heads on straight and got in an accident."
NASCAR shrinks plate openings
Before Sprint Cup cars hit the track Wednesday for practice for Thursday's Duels, NASCAR announced yet another competition change designed to slow the racing pace.
The sanctioning body reduced the diameter of the openings in restrictor plates provided to competitors by 1/64 inch, narrowing the openings from 58/64ths of an inch to 57/64ths, thereby depriving the cars of roughly 10 horsepower.
Coupled with a reduction in water temperatures engines can tolerate—thanks to the mandated 33 pounds-per-square-inch for pressure relief valves—and a reduction in the grille openings in the noses of the cars, the Cups cars won't be able to hook up in prolonged two-car drafts, as they did in Saturday's Budweiser Shootout.
In Wednesday's two Cup practice sessions, speeds dropped significantly from the 206.068 mph posted by Michael Waltrip on Lap 10 of the Shootout, the fastest lap of the event. No driver reached 201 mph on Wednesday, and indication that NASCAR's changes were having the desired effect.
Jeff Gordon got some unwanted publicity in a recent Maxim story on Brian Vickers, who was sidelined by blood clots last year but is returning to drive the No. 83 Red Bull Toyota in the Cup series this year.
The Maxim story describes Vickers' hard partying in lurid detail. At one point, when Vickers and author Mike Guy were visiting a New York nightclub, Vickers called Gordon and tried to convince the four-time champion to join them.
After Gordon declined, Vickers told Guy, according to the story, "(Expletive) Gordon. He used to be a lot of fun."
Gordon took umbrage at the phone call.
"All I can say is, that's not for me," Gordon said. "I've had great times over the years, but you know I'm a family guy, and I try to represent my sponsors in a way they'd like to be represented. And it's different for him. He's young. He's single. He's got Red Bull as his sponsor, so I don't know how they would perceive it.
"What I was going to say to him is that, the next time he's out with a writer from Maxim magazine, and he's having a good time, he can forget my phone number about calling me to join them."