Daytona 500 pole winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to forfeit the top starting spot for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season opener after crashing his pole-winning car during practice on Wednesday.
Earnhardt, who locked in the pole with his 186.089mph lap in last Sunday's qualifying, was tandem-drafting with Jimmie Johnson when the pair were forced to check up for slower traffic, and were hit from behind by another drafting combo of Martin Truex Jr. and Brian Vickers. Earnhardt and Truex spun and both suffered damage serious enough to prompt them to be withdrawn, and so both drivers will start at the rear of the field in back-up cars for Thursday's Gatorade Duels qualifying races. Truex's starting position for the 500 remains to be set anyway, so he will start Sunday's race wherever he finishes in his 150-mile duel. However, since he is withdrawing a qualified car, Earnhardt will have to drop to the back of the pack just prior to the start of the Daytona 500.
"We've got plenty of racecars – I ain't worried about how fast we'll be or whether we'll be as good. We'll be fine," Earnhardt said. "But it never feels good tearing them up.
"I'm just disappointed in myself. I didn't feel good about getting out there practicing, and didn't think I needed to be out there practicing. I just had a bad feeling about it. We come running up on some guys who didn't have their heads on straight and got into an accident."
Johnson affirmed that he had to slow down suddenly when a pack of three cars ahead of him and Earnhardt – driven by Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip and David Gilliland – drifted high from the bottom of the track toward the top.
Earnhardt and Truex – a longtime personal friend – got together immediately after the race to discuss the incident. Asked what Truex told him, Earnhardt replied, "That he was sorry for running into the back of me. And that he didn't have anywhere to go – and I'm sure he didn't. We were all off the gas pretty hard right there for those guys to pull up the racetrack. We might have had room on the outside to get through, but it was real tight. They moved up off the bottom into the middle of the racetrack at least, from what I could tell and what I can remember, and just give us the impression we were going to need to check-up.
"They keep slowing the cars down and it makes a car drafting normally much slower, and now the closing rate on the two-car pack is even faster; I mean. it's just real hard. Hopefully there's no more accidents the rest of this week. We're all kind of getting the hang of it, but the guys who aren't in a two-car pack, need to be aware that those guys are going to come flying up on them faster than they think. And you've just got to keep that in mind and hold your line.”
Earnhardt's incident is his second during Speedweeks events at Daytona, as he also crashed during Saturday's Budweiser Shootout, and admitted his frustration.
"Just feeling a little snake-bit right now, because, I don't feel like I was really at fault in any of them but we just keep getting in them," he said.