THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Practice crash proves costly

Earnhardt goes from first to last

Dale Earnhardt Jr. surveys the damage after a practice crash bumped the pole winner to the back of the Daytona 500 field. Dale Earnhardt Jr. surveys the damage after a practice crash bumped the pole winner to the back of the Daytona 500 field. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / February 17, 2011

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a bad feeling.

After winning the pole for the Daytona 500 with a qualifying lap of 186.089 miles per hour during Sunday’s time trials, he didn’t believe he needed to subject himself or his pole-winning car to any unnecessary risks. He didn’t believe it was a good idea to turn practice laps for today’s Duel at Daytona International Speedway.

But it was imperative that he do so because of rule changes NASCAR has made to slow cars after speeds surpassed 200 miles per hour — peaking at 206 — in Saturday’s Budweiser Shootout.

Earnhardt, as it turned out, should have trusted his instincts.

The pole winner was relegated to the rear of the field for Sunday’s 53d Daytona 500 after he was involved in a crash yesterday in which his No. 88 Chevrolet sustained extensive damage when he was rear-ended by the No. 56 Toyota of Martin Truex Jr.

The damage forced Earnhardt, who will also start from the rear of his 150-mile heat in the Duel, to junk his pole-winning car in lieu of a third backup car, which required extensive work from his crew to install an engine and fuel cell, leaving Earnhardt with no practice time in the car.

It was Earnhardt’s second wreck of the week, as he crashed his backup car three laps into the second 50-lap segment of the 75-lap Shootout.

“Just feeling a little snake-bit right now,’’ Earnhardt said. “I don’t feel like I was really at fault in any of them, but we just keep getting in them.’’

The damaged Shootout car, which was sent to the team’s North Carolina race shop for repairs, now becomes Earnhardt’s backup.

“Well, we’ve got plenty of racecars,’’ said Earnhardt, who recorded the third-fastest lap of his practice session (199.526) before the crash. “And I ain’t worried about how fast we’ll be or whether we’ll be as good. We’ll be fine.

“But you know, 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.’’

The accident occurred on Earnhardt’s 19th lap after the No. 48 Chevy of Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, suddenly checked up in front of him. Johnson was forced to take evasive maneuvers when he got squeezed on the outside by a draft of cars driven by Michael Waltrip, David Gilliland, and Robby Gordon that fanned out three-wide as they came off Turn 4.

Johnson’s car got out of shape, causing Earnhardt to check up as well, leaving Truex nowhere to go.

“They started kind of creeping up and giving Jimmie and me the impression they were going to be close to the hole on the outside, so Jimmie lifted,’’ Earnhardt said. “He about wrecked and I got off the gas and there were a couple of guys coming behind me. Truex and a couple other guys just didn’t have a chance.

“You got to pay attention out there, man. I mean, if you’re going to come out here and race, you need to pay attention.’’

Because he is in his backup car, Earnhardt will not be able to improve his starting position in the 500, even if he wins his heat in the Duel. And if he does win, the runner-up will slide into the pole sitter’s spot in the 43-car grid.

Yesterday, NASCAR officials took added measures to reduce escalating speeds at Daytona’s repaved 2.5-mile tri-oval by reducing the openings on carburetor restrictor plates by 1/64th of an inch, resulting in a horsepower reduction of 10 miles per hour.

That followed two rule changes announced Sunday to regulate air intake through the radiator and water temperature of the engine’s cooling system.

After Earnhardt’s pole victory last Sunday, crew chief Steve Letarte was asked where the Shootout car ranked among the fleet of cars the No. 88 team brought to Daytona. Was it the bullet?

“I don’t think it was as good as the car in qualifying,’’ Letarte said. “I have another car that I feel is just as good as the Shootout car. I have a lot of confidence in the Shootout car we raced before. I can assure you of one thing: We will not come down to Daytona without enough bullets in the chamber.

“We’ll have enough to run all the way through Sunday.’’

Prompting Earnhardt to chime in, “Just in case.’’