Both drivers were no doubt expecting different finishes than what they got Sunday at Daytona International Speedway. Veteran and two time Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. seemed a shoo-in for a third Daytona 500 win and young Chase Elliott was hoping for a good finish in his first race as he tries to fill the shoes of a legendary driver.
Both drivers saw their respective days end with finishes that left many wondering what had happened. Earnhardt was scored with a DNF in 36th, place while Elliott finished one spot behind, 37th, 40 laps down.
For young Elliott the week started with much promise. In his first race in the iconic No. 24 car, Elliott won his first pole last Sunday. Then Saturday, Elliott scored his first Daytona win racing to victory in the XFINITY series race at Daytona.
Sunday, Elliott led the field to the green and led a lap before Dale Earnhardt Jr. powered by and grabbed the top spot. Still Elliott was running inside the top 10 and seemed to be holding his won. But on lap 19 while in a three wide battle, Elliott spun exiting turn 4. His Chevy clipped the Toyota of Carl Edwards and he came to a stop in the infield grass with heavy front end damage. Elliott later said he wasn’t sure what had happened as there didn’t appear to have been any contact with another car.
“Got in the middle and got loose,” Elliott said. “Lost it and spun out. I hate it for everybody at less than 20 laps in and have something dumb like that happen. I apologize to my guys.”
Elliott saw his car taken to the garage by a wrecker. The crew was able to make repairs and return to the race.
“I hate it-it had been such a fun week,” Elliott said. “You hate to end the race before it even got started. Just disappointed for everybody. We will just have to look past it and get on for Atlanta. That is the most important thing now. Can’t get caught up in what happened today, it is irrelevant now.”
The troubles for Earnhardt came later in the race. Earnhardt had led 15 laps and had been running near the front. But in the final quarter of the race, Earnhardt had faded and was outside the top 10. He was struggling to move forward but on lap 170, he went lost control and went for a solo spin also exiting turn 4. Earnhardt was able to slide past other cars but not the inside wall. Earnhardt smacked the wall hard and slid to a stop in the grass near the entrance to pit road. Earnhardt was uninjured, but his race was over and he was scored 36th.
“I just got loose,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been really working on the balance of the car. I’ve been pushing real bad all day, especially off of Turn 4. We just got it really free. We took two tires there and just didn’t have overall grip I was hoping for. I was aggressive trying to side draft guys and move forward. We were making some ground on the leaders a little bit so that was looking pretty good because the outside line really hadn’t been doing anything all day. Just busted my butt there. Driver mistake.”
Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500. The highest finishing Hendrick Motorsports driver was Kasey Kahne who finished 13th.