Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s third Daytona 500 victory will have to wait.
Entering Sunday’s 58th running of The Great American Race as the prohibitive favorite to go to Victory Lane, the sport’s most popular driver spun without contact from another car on Lap 182 of 200, hitting the inside wall nose first and ending his day.
“I just got loose,” said Earnhardt, who won the 500 with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2004 and Hendrick Motorsports in 2014. "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."
Earnhardt, who won his Can-Am Duel on Thursday and had been one of the fastest drivers throughout Speedweeks, led 15 laps after taking the lead early from pole winner Chase Elliott but eventually faded to the mid-teens, where he lingered throughout the middle stages of the race.
When the No. 88 car spun, Earnhardt had rallied back into the top 10 and seemed to be surging, however.
“We were up there around fifth or sixth there and we spun out moving forward,” the third-generation driver said. “We had passed about four or five cars there in the last three or four laps. We were making some ground.”
Earnhardt’s Chevrolet – dubbed “Amelia” – was the one he drove to two victories in last year’s four-restrictor-plate races.
“It’s fast when it doesn’t have to handle good, but today it needed to handle and we weren’t handling,” Earnhardt said.
On Sunday, the often dominant car never really performed to the Hendrick Motorsports driver’s liking.
"We had been working on the balance all day," he said. "That was our problem. We really underestimated how important handling was going to be today. We’ve had a rocket all week, but it was in single-car runs and at the night races, the car has handled great.
"We gotta do a little more drafting, I think, there the next time we come back and be ready for the balance and the things they threw at us today. We were starting to move forward and get aggressive, and I just lost it."