Eighteen minutes into the first practice for Thursday’s Gatorade Duels, Earnhardt got tapped from behind by Martin Truex Jr., sending him into the wall, destroying the No. 88 Chevrolet. With steam shooting from under his hood and his rear bumper dragging on the ground, Earnhardt wheeled his car to the garage where his crew was already unloading his backup car.
Because he will not be racing the same car he won the pole with on Sunday, Earnhardt will now start at the rear of the field in both the Gatorade Duel and Sunday's Daytona 500.
"We were coming around [Turns] 3 and 4 and some guys on the inside moved up toward the top lane and me and Jimmie [Johnson] checked up cause we didn't know if they were coming into our lane and we got run over from behind," explained Earnhardt. "Same old stuff that always happens here."
Johnson was unscathed. Truex will also go to a backup car.
When asked what his emotions are after knowing he'll have to start at the rear of the field, Earnhardt responded, "Get the next [car] ready."
Rain delayed practice for several hours. When it finally got started, it was the first time on the track for a number of drivers, including Robby Gordon, Michael Waltrip and David Gilliland. Those three were locked in a three-car train, with Gordon leading the way. As they entered Turn 4, Gordon veered up the track and directly in the way of Johnson and Earnhardt, who were traveling some 20 mph faster.
Pinched against the wall with nowhere to go, Johnson had to check up, sparking a pile up behind him.
"It's a new game," Johnson said of Daytona, where the two-car draft has emerged as the fastest way to get around the track. "A spotter's job is far more important and covers a lot more areas than it ever has. Spotting the front, spotting behind, letting you know when a two-car pack is coming.
"I think it was an innocent thing, but you can't start on the bottom of the race track and then find your way all the way to the top in the corner," he continued. "That was so avoidable. That didn't need to happen."
Said Earnhardt: "We're all kind of getting the hang of it, but the guys that aren't … need to be aware that those guys [in a two-car pack] 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 will roll off pit road first in Sunday's Daytona 500, but will peel off and make his way to the rear of the field before the drop of the green flag. When he does, the winner of the first Gatorade Duel (or the second-place finisher if Junior wins) will slide into his spot.
- Robby Gordon