As the favorite to win Sunday’s Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. stunned fans when he lost control of his car in the treacherous fourth turn, USA Today reported. After leading 15 laps early in the race, Earnhardt Jr. was reportedly pushing to break into the top five contenders when he lost rear-end traction and slid through traffic – narrowly missing collision – and hit the inside wall.
The crash happened right after he passed Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin, who went on to win the race.
Caused by handling issues, the crash reportedly did enough front-end damage to Earnhardt Jr.’s car to take him out of the race, causing him to finish in 36th place. Earnhardt Jr. said they had been “working on the balance all day.”
“It caught me by surprise. I was trying to side-draft a guy beside me and boy, it pinned the right front. All the downforce there… That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today.”
Today would have been Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third Daytona 500 victory if things had gone as expected, reported Fox Sports. In what was the 58th running of the “Great American Race,” one of the sporting world’s most popular drivers – and the overwhelming favorite to win – instead spun out and lost control without hitting another car on Lap 182.
Earnhardt, who won the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, told reporters he “got loose,” off of Turn 4 and didn’t have the overall grip he needed to pull through. He had been one of the fastest drivers throughout Speedweeks leading up to the big race and also won his Can-Am Duel last Thursday.
When the crash happened Sunday, Earnhardt had made it back into the top ten racers after falling back into the teens throughout the middle stages of the race. According to Fox Sports, the third-generation driver said they were “making some ground” when he lost control of the vehicle.
“We had passed about four or five cars there in the last three or four laps.”
Nicknamed “Amelia,” Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet race car is the same one he drove to two wins during the 2015 four-restrictor-plate races, but at the Daytona 500 Sunday the car never really hit peak performance, according to the driver.
“We’ve had a rocket all week, but it was in single-car runs and at the night races, the car has handled great.”
According to the Orlando Sentinel, driver Denny Hamlin went on to win his first Daytona 500 victory after taking an enormous risk on his final lap and beating Martin Truex Jr. in what became the closest finish in the event’s history. Hamlin also made what would be the biggest move of this year’s race, coming up to third from the 11th spot.
“Ten different drivers have had the lead, including several multiple times like Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Earnhardt Jr.”
Coming out of the day’s fourth caution with two new tires, Denny Hamlin regained the lead with just 77 laps to go in his No. 11 Toyota, but a green-flag stop with just 44 laps left in the race left Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin vying for the top spot in this year’s field. Ultimately, Hamlin edged Truex out by mere inches at the finish line, giving Toyota its first Daytona 500 victory, reported USA Today.
“Hamlin was running fourth on the final lap before making a strong move to the outside, nudging teammate Matt Kenseth and then powering by Truex.”
Hamlin also became the first driver in the history of the race since Davey Allison in 1992 to win after leading the Daytona 500 at the halfway point.
[Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images]