SPARTA, Ky. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't even wait to take off his helmet. He climbed out of his No. 88 car and walked directly around to the front end of the vehicle, where he stared at a grille opening that had buckled as if it were kicked by a boot.
"I was curious, because it didn't feel good," Earnhardt said. "Just unfortunate bad luck there to catch that tire casing coming across the race track like that."
Earnhardt's hopes of winning from the pole Sunday at Kentucky Speedway were effectively ended just 38 laps into the event, which had been pushed back a day by rain. Denny Hamlin cut a tire, and the casing from the separated rubber fell right into the path of Earnhardt and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, who were running first and second, respectively, at the time.
Johnson caught a glancing blow off the right headlight decal, and went on to lead a race-high 182 laps before spinning on a late restart and finishing ninth in the Quaker State 400 presented by Advance Auto Parts. But Earnhardt hit it first, and the debris put a dent in the front grille of the No. 88 car, which was never the same afterward.
"I'm guessing the first one to hit it probably took the brunt of the blow," said Earnhardt's crew chief, Steve Letarte. "It looks like it hit them right in the headlight. It hit ours right in the lower grille. These cars are so sensitive -- you hit it in one spot, it doesn't matter. Where it hit ours was not good."
That much was evident by the exchange over team radio, particularly in light of the fact that the No. 88 had suffered engine failures in two of the previous five races.
"Awesome," Earnhardt said sarcastically. "Yeah, I agree. Spectacular," Letarte responded. Immediately afterward Earnhardt stayed out front rather than give up track position for repairs, but had to come in eventually, and fell back to 30th when he eventually did.
"I knew it was real bad. I thought it had knocked the splitter off it. Those casings weigh maybe about 80 pounds, and we hit it wide open. ? When I'm in the corner loaded up, I can't drive it left to right," said Earnhardt, who rebounded to finish 12th, and actually improved one spot to sixth in Sprint Cup Series points.
"It knocked all the grille out of it and punched a bunch of holes in the nose. We patched it up pretty good. The splitter was bent, and ? it just took all day to figure out what all was wrong. A bunch of little stuff. It was feeling really good at the end."
Although Earnhardt also finished 12th last weekend on the road course at Sonoma, Calif., Kentucky marked the second consecutive oval-track race in which he wasn't able to reap the benefits of having one of the best cars in the field. Two weeks ago at Michigan, he led 34 laps before an engine failure -- again, while he was in the lead -- knocked him out 69 laps short of the finish. Sunday he started from the pole and led 10 circuits, but everything changed once the loose rubber thwacked the front end of his car.
"I'm not a big believer in racing luck, but when a tire rolls out in front of you and you're the leader, I don't know what else to call it," Letarte said. "It's just disappointment. Disappointment for the guys. They worked real hard, they built a great car. Everybody in the whole building, they built two great race cars, us and the 48 (of Johnson). To qualify where we did, and see how fast the 48 was, was pretty disappointing, because we were pretty close to them, and I thought we probably would have run close to them."
Ultimately, Johnson didn't finish much better. While Earnhardt was clearly disappointed with the finish, he was also pleased to have another solid car. "It's good to be fast. I'm happy about that. We can't do nothing about what's happened to us, we've just got to keep working. Can't get down about it," he said.
"I'm disappointed in the luck, but you can't let that take away from how well the cars have been running. Inside the team, we've got to go, 'Hey man, we're doing everything right. Stay the course. Luck will turn around and things will add up and we're going to finish well.' You start getting angry and start pulling levers and trying to change stuff, we don't need to. We've got fast cars. You can't make luck like that good or bad. It's going to happen to you sometime."
Sunday, that bad luck left Letarte shaking his head and showing a wry smile.
"I've seen it all. We've hit concrete with Jeff Gordon at Martinsville, sealer with Jeff Gordon at Charlotte, and now a tire with Dale Jr. at Kentucky," said the crew chief, who once oversaw Gordon's No. 24 team. "Nothing really surprises me anymore."
See video of the tire incident below:
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