DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Twice Dale Earnhardt Jr. blew his pit stop, both mind-numbing mistakes. The second cost him a one-lap penalty. Soon after, "fighting over nothing," as Kyle Busch called it, Junior sparked a nine-car wreck that took out many of the serious contenders for the Daytona 500. Later, he got blamed for an incident with another driver.
It left Matt Kenseth to win a frustrating, rain-shorted race and left many wondering if Junior is going to insist on ruining his own race, he might be kind enough to spare everyone else. No one was hurt more than Busch, who had the best car all day, leading 88 of the first 125 laps.
"Yeah it was accidental," said Earnhardt of getting into Brian Vickers after Vickers forced him onto the back stretch grass. "I wouldn't want to wreck the field."
No one thinks Earnhardt is a bad guy, just one who keeps wasting away immense possibilities.
Bad run after bad run, late season fade after late season fade, silly error after silly error, it all just keeps happening.
Here in his 10th season, it's long past time for Earnhardt to start delivering on the track the way he does at the merchandise booth. He's turned the grandstands from red to garish green, from Budweiser to Amp Energy, from 8 to 88, yet all those devoted members of Junior Nation once again have little to cheer about except his likable personality.
At age 34, he's running out of reasons to explain his career and running out of time to change it.
With virtually every advantage given to him, he's failed to win a Cup championship. He's won just three races since 2004 and just one in his last 99 starts.
Earnhardt left his late-father's company, Dale Earnhardt Inc., because he wanted to win a Cup championship. He went to Hendrick Motorsports, where Johnson and Gordon have won a combined seven titles.
Junior has the support necessary to get serious. He certainly had a capable car here, even leading for a lap. It was set up nice for him in one of his preferred restrictor plate races at a track where he's won multiple times and his family name is sacred among blue-collar fans.
Yet, once again the story is what he couldn't pull off, not what he could. It's about mental errors and confusing collisions and the inevitable pointed fingers.
With Junior there's always an excuse, always a story on why it wasn't his fault.
He blamed his first pit mistake – overshooting his box – on there being too many teams waving the same pink-colored sign.
"It's hard to see," he said. "I just wasn't thinking."
He admitted guilt on the second, having his left-front tire on the outside line, but bristled that NASCAR's one-lap punishment was too severe.
"Only an inch on the line," he said. "Maybe it's time we reevaluate that rule."
We revaluate? And Earnhardt wonders why many believe he's coddled by NASCAR?
Vickers accused Junior of wrecking him on purpose and said Earnhardt clipping his back fender as he moved back onto the track was a clear rule violation.
"Typically NASCAR penalizes (five laps for that)," Vickers said. "I guess they aren't going to penalize him."
"Penalize me, for what?" Junior shot back. "I got [run] into and sent below the line. What the hell?"
He turned his anger back on Vickers.
"I don't hate it for him [being wrecked], I hate it for everybody else that got wrecked."
Later Junior forced Jeff Burton three wide on a restart causing him to crash.
"He was upset at me," Earnhardt said. "I should've worked with him and all that."
That sounds diplomatic, but Junior defended his aggressive driving by claiming that with the rain coming, he needed to make a move to win. The truth was, he had no realistic chance at that point. There was no justification for it.
Earnhardt is a fun guy, a nice guy and a guy who represents his sport off the track in all the best ways. He's been voted the sport's favorite driver six times.
At some point there has to be more, though. At some point there needs to be some steak that goes with the sizzle. At some point he needs to deliver or forever be known for his fame and fans, not his ability.
He spent much of last season, his first with Hendrick, in the top five of the standings. When the pressure hit late in the year though, he fell all the way to last in the Chase.
Now there's this inauspicious start to the season.
Five years ago Earnhardt won Daytona and his future seemed limitless. Since then, it's been too many unforced errors that speak not to a bad day but concentration breakdowns. There are only so many things that can be argued away before it comes back to the driver impacting the race in all the wrong ways.
"One guy had problems all day on pit road and his problems became our problems and then our problems [became] big problems," Kyle Busch said.
Earnhardt could only offer happy-go-lucky innocence – forgive me because you like me.
He left his car and headed for his hauler, the rain falling harder and harder. A group of fans weathered it though. What's a downpour when they could get a glimpse of their famous hero? Clad in his colors, they followed right behind him like always.
What exactly they're following is the question.
- Brian Vickers