DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. survived one brush with the wall but couldn’t survive another that followed him running into the spinning Kevin Harvick with 54 laps remaining Saturday night in the Coke Zero 400.
Earnhardt, who is retiring from full-time NASCAR Cup racing after this season, tried to have the storybook night at Daytona International Speedway. Starting on the pole and running in the lead pack about 55 laps into the race, Earnhardt felt the car having a flat tire, lifted off the throttle and got hit by Paul Menard, slapping the wall and losing two laps for repairs.
He got both those laps back by receiving the free pass as being the top car not on the lead lap when the caution came out. But about 30 laps after he got back on the lead lap – and got as high as seventh – Harvick had a flat, spun and Earnhardt ran into him, ending his day 106 laps into the 160-lap race.
“I definitely had enough race car, it was just a matter of getting back up toward the lead,” Earnhardt said about his chances of rallying from two laps down. “We were going to have to be real aggressive. The car was good – it was shaking and … it wasn’t straight all the way around but it would still run pretty good.”
Harvick was critical of the tires after the accident, saying he felt vibrations twice during the race and didn’t think it was anything else in the car.
“There wasn’t much I could do,” Earnhardt said. “It wasn’t a hard hit.”
In what was possibly his last-ever Cup race at Daytona — Earnhardt said it was 50-50 whether he could return in a substitute or one-off role — Earnhardt said his phone was filled with texts amid the publicity of a potential final run at a track where he has 17 wins across various series.
“There was a ton of damn buildup,” said Earnhardt, who finished 32nd, with a little bit of a laugh. “My phone was going crazy. … Hopefully it didn’t wear everybody out. We’ve got a lot of racing, a lot of fun to be had the rest of the season. We’ll get back to work next weekend.
“I know everybody thought this was our best shot to win, but things like this give us a little more fuel to work hard and try to show people where we can win at some of the other race tracks.”
Earnhardt said he enjoyed the aggressive nature of the race Saturday night.
“It was as lot of fun — we were really aggressive, banging doors and sliding against the fence,” Earnhardt said. “It was pretty wild. It was a like a little short-track race tonight. … The heat and the Fourth of July, everything is pointing in the drivers of getting all the drivers really on edge, one the chip.
“There was a lot of carnage out there. It was really aggressive in the pack. That was fun as long as we didn’t get taken out or take ourselves out. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it through the race.”